Pa named him when he was just a foal. He told me he looked just the color of a rusty old hinge pin he had layin' on his workbench in the old tool shed, the exact same color, so he just hung that name on him. I'm kind of glad, 'cause it's a real nifty name.
I'm Paul, and I'm 13, and Rusty is four years older'n me. Sorta like a big brother, I guess. He sorta treats me that way. He's got a mind of his own, and thinks he's the boss of me, and looks out for me, too. Of course, a couple of times, that were a pretty good deal.
One of those times was when I was seven. I thought I was pretty hot stuff. You know how kids who are seven are. They can't see past what they want, and are about as dumb as gooseberries when it comes to thinkin' about danger. I sure was. I'd been ridin' Rusty for a couple of years by then. He was mine. Pa gave him to me for my fifth birthday. 'Course, I had to take care of him, but for a farm kid, that was nuthin'. I had my other chores to do as well, and taking care of Rusty was almost fun. I got to feed him, bathe and curry him and change his straw. Digging out his stall and all that weren't much fun, but they weren't that bad, neither, 'cause all the time I'd be doing that, I'd be talkin' to him. He'd stand there and listen up real good, too, and nicker at just the right times. I was pretty sure he understood human, a lot more than I understood horse. I told him a lot of things. More'n I'd ever tell anyone else. When you're seven and most everythin's new and confusin' and you got all these doubts, you sure have a lot to talk about, and question, and some of that stuff you don't want anyone to hear.
It was summer and I'd done my mornin' chores and the whole day stretched out in front of me to decide what to do with. I'd decided, hot as it was, to take a picnic lunch with me and head for the creek and go swimmin'. 'Course I didn't tell my ma about that last part 'cause she was dead set against me swimmin' alone. You learned right quick you don't tell your ma and pa what they don't need to know about.
I was done chorin' by nine, and the sun was already a mite too hot to stand under lessin' you were movin' around some, mostly movin' towards any shade you could find. I walked into the kitchen, lettin' the door slam behind me.
"Paulie!" my mother called, usin' her provoked voice. I was still little 'nuff back then that I didn't mind that Paulie name. Couple years later, me'n her would have some words about that, but back then, Paulie was fine.
"What've I told you about that door?" She was soundin' right sore, but you never know anyone as well as you know your ma when you're seven. She weren't really mad. I knowed when she was. She wanted me to think she were proper put out, though. She was right tired of that door slammin'.
"Oh, sorry. Forgot again. Hey, could you make me some samiches, maybe a piece of pie and put some lemonade in a jar for me? I was thinkin' on riding over into the woods and gettin' out of the heat and havin' me a picnic, just me an' Rusty. What'a you think?"
"I think you're forgettin' your manners."
Ma was big on manners. I was big on playin' Ma. I played her just right then, too. Now, when I said 'please' after all that, I knew she'd be so happy she'd never even think to say 'no' about the picnic, and prolly forget 'bout the door, too. And I'd done it just right, 'cause she got to makin' those samiches and lemonade and cuttin' that pie. I slipped a few carrots into the bag she packed it all in. 'Long about an hour later, after I'd rested up some, Rusty and me were off towards the woods, which by some lucky coincidence happened to be in the same direction as my swimmin' place at the creek.
It was some warm, ridin' out. I had my straw hat on and that protected my face and head. Rusty was all happy, a little frisky 'cause we hadn't done much ridin' for the last couple days. I'd been chorin' heavy lately 'cause of my mouth, which seemed to have a mind of its own. Pa never much whipped me, though sometimes I wished he would. A whippin', while it might bring tears to my eyes, was done in a minute, and chores could take all day, should my mouth be sassy enough. I kinda wished I had better control over it. Figured maybe I would, when I was eight.
Rusty was jumpin' 'round some, but I let him 'cause I was happy too. He was so playful when I was getting him ready, he kept reachin' around and pullin' his saddle blanket off just as I was heftin' the saddle up. Now that saddle weighted somethin' and I was seven, so I was gettin' somewhat provoked, and he was laughin' at me. Don't tell me horses can't laugh. Till you've been laughed at by one, you have no idea. Anyways, I spoke sharply to him when his teasin' were not nearly as charmin' as he must a thought it was and he looked remorseful then, so I finished saddlin' him, finally, and we were off.
I thought he might like to run a mite, so when we were in the pasture I told him he could, and he lit out. Good thing I'd learned to squeeze tight with my knees 'fore I told him he could run. I squeezed with my knees, held on to the reins tight, punched my hat down tighter on my head, leaned forward a bit so my head was next to his neck and said, "Let's go, Rusty," and he was off before the words were out of my mouth. The air rushin' past felt good. I weren't wearin' a shirt at all, and that air, even warm as it was, felt mighty good. Dried some of the sweat off my face and body.
It weren't too far to where we had to enter the woods, so the run didn't seem to tire Rusty at all, even as hot as it was.
The woods were cooler since the sun couldn't get at us all that much. I slowed Rusty to a walk and told him we were goin' to the creek, then just hooked the reins in a loop over the saddle horn. He knew the way as well as I did. I looked around as he walked and saw some squirrels but nuthin' much else. I was hopin' Pa would get me a .22 rifle for my 8 th birthday. Knowing where those squirrels were hangin' out might come in handy, if'n he was to do that.
When we got to the creek, I was surprised to find Ben and Bud there. They lived on the farm next to ours, but I didn't see them all that much. Ben was 14, a real big kid, while Bud was about my age. But it was too far to go to meet up with them real regular like. I'd gotten used to bein' by myself when I had free time. Myself and Rusty. So it was a real treat to find them here to play with.
When Pa had first brought me here, he'd always called this the creek. To me, it looked like a river. Prob'ly most people would a called it a river, but to Pa, it were a creek, or at least that's what he called it. Maybe his pa had called it that to him. In the summer sometimes it got to bein' just a creek, I guess, but most of the time, and often even in the summer, it looked like what I'd call a river. I was seven, though, so I just called it what Pa did. But it was wide enough that it would have taken a while to wade across, if you could have, but it was way too deep for me to do that, especially out a ways from the bank. Where we swum the creek had widened out and there was a shallower spot in by the bank, only about four feet deep where the water weren't movin' at all. That's why we chose to swim there. If you got past that and out into the where the water was runnin', then there was a current and I'd been told many times not to get out past my shoulders.
The area around the creek right at that swimmin' place had some trees and bushes and a wide bank that was all grass where we'd lay when we were done playin' in the water. It was a real nice place, pretty and peaceful, and the shade from the trees and the nearness of the water made it cooler there.
I'd planned to eat my lunch before swimmin', but with those two boys there, I wanted to get to playin'; lunch would have to wait. Those two boys were already in the water, splashin' each other and bickerin'. They almost always were arguin' with each other. You'd think with Ben being such a big kid, he'd just haul off and thump Bud when he got to natterin' at him, but Ben put up with it and just cussed him back. I'd never seen him hit him. Of course, like I said, I didn't spend much time with them.
"Hey, Paulie." That was Bud. Ben was just smilin' at me. Other'n cussin' a lot at Bud, he never did say too much. Matter of fact, they sorta acted like equals. That makes you think Ben might a been a little simple, me sayin' it like that, but he weren't. He just was real quiet. Maybe if Bud didn't get on him some, he'd never a said anythin' at all.
I answered back, then jumped down. I never bothered to tie Rusty up or anythin'. He wouldn't never a left me.
I stripped my shorts and underpants off and headed for that water. It felt so good. The current was stronger than usual, prob'ly from a big rain we'd had a few days ago. But the cold water was what I needed after all the heat we'd been havin' since then.
Bud and I splashed each other and wrassled some. We competed to see who could stay under water the longest. We tried back floatin' and front floatin'. Ben just sorta stayed mostly submerged in the water, up to his neck, and watched.
After awhile, we all got out and lay in the grass on the bank, lettin' the sun dry us, and the warm take the chill off us. Bud and I blabbered away, not talkin' about anythin' important, just talkin' like little kids do. Ben didn't say anythin', just lay lookin' at us and then lookin' at what few clouds there were in that deep blue sky, but that was just how Ben was.
Pretty soon after that, when we were dry, Ben said they had to get, and he and Bud got dressed and took off. Bud looked back and waved to me, and I grinned at him and waved, too.
It was too early for me to go back home. If'n I did, Ma would certainly find some more chores to do, and I'd done my fill. I decided to go back in that water again. Lyin' on the bank had warmed me up, and now I was sweatin' again.
I jumped in and let the cold take me. Weren't but a minute and I was feeling frisky. Without Bud to splash and play with, I tried to find something to do so I wouldn't just stand there feelin' the cold. I thought I'd practice my underwater swimming by seeing if I could find any rocks on the bottom. The creek bottom was mostly just some thin water weeds and mud, but there were some rocks, and though they weren't sharp, you could still bruise your foot if you came down too hard on one.
So I started divin' down, holdin' my breath and feelin' round for them. With the water movin' faster than usual, there was way too much silt and mud in that water to see anythin' if'n I opened my eyes. So I kept them shut and just felt around.
I'd come up for air, blow out anything I had left and take a huge gasp of new air, then go back down again and start feeling around. I was doing this, stayin' pretty close to the bank, but I just lost track of exactly where I was, after a bit. Also, I was getting tired. I didn't swim all that much, so that weren't too much of a surprise.
I stayed down longer than usual that last time because I found a rock but it didn't want to come out of the mud. I worked on it while my air was gettin' short, too long really, and then suddenly had to kick hard for the surface. I came up, but my desperate kicking to get up had taken me away from the bank, and now I was mostly right in the middle of the creek, and right then, that creek seemed more like a river. Where I was, the water was moving much faster than closer in.
I hadn't realized when I was in that calm place we usually swam what it was like out there in the middle. The water was really flowin' there, and the current powerful. And I was tired. Not a good combination at all.
I kinda panicked, which of course was the wrong thing to do. If I'd just taken a big breath, put my head back in the water and swum hard for the bank, I might have made it okay. But my fear made me keep my head up, out of the water, and that made my strokes way too weak to make any headway goin' cross-current for the bank. So I just sorta beat at the water, holdin' my head up the best I could, and started to be swept down river.
When I saw what was happenin', then I really started to panic. It was seein' that I couldn't do anythin' to help myself. I was havin' a hard time just keepin' my head above water. I started screamin' then, yellin' for help, but there was no one around to hear me, and I knew it.
And then I heard a whinny. I got my head as high as I could and looked at the bank. Rusty was there, throwin' his head and neighin', runnin' along the bank, keepin' up with me as I sped down river.
"Rusty! Rusty! Rusty!" I shouted his name, knowin' even while doin' it that it was stupid. But I was runnin' out of hope and strength and will, and yellin' his name was at least doin' somethin' that felt sorta useful.
I was suddenly under water and had to kick hard to come back up. The water was twistin' and turnin' me now, and my futile efforts to kick hard enough to stay on the surface were failin'.
Then I heard splashin', loud enough to take myself out of the fog that I'd been falling into. When the water turned me in that direction, I could see Rusty. He was in the water now and swimmin' with powerful strokes. He was about 20 yards away and comin' closer.
I fought harder against the water, kickin' with the last of my energy. Hope had suddenly come to me, and with it renewed energy. I struggled, and Rusty kept gettin' nearer.
And then he was beside me, and I could grab his reins. I did and pulled. It didn't move him none but it did me. Pulled me closer to him. I got the idea then and went hand over hand along those reins till I reached his head, and then slithered up onto his shoulders.
I was completely beat and just lay there, huggin' him, by arms wrapped around his neck. He was still moving his legs, but with me on his back he now turned and started to move toward the bank and away from the middle of the river.
It didn't take but a few moments I don't think, and then he was fightin' his way up onto the bank. I don't know for sure 'cause all I was doin' was hangin' on and breathin' hard. When he got there, I slipped off him and sank down onto the grass. I was pantin' hard. But the fear I'd felt was gone now.
Rusty was standin' over me, lookin' down, and it was like he was Ma. I could see disapproval in his eyes. I thought real hard then. How could he have known? He was a horse, and even at seven I could appreciate that. How did he know I was in trouble? He'd known. He had to have. He'd come into that creek and saved me. And he'd done that on purpose. But how had he known I needed him to? I thought on that, and remembered something Pa had told me.
We talked, Pa and me. He taught me stuff. Thing is, he never made it sound like he was teachin' me. He'd just talk about stuff, and I caught on pretty quick it was stuff he was sayin' that he thought maybe I should know, or would be interested in knowin'. When he was workin' with me cleanin' Rusty's stall, showin' me how before I'd done it myself, he'd been talkin' about horses. He'd told me that horses was much diff'rent from people. He said they didn't really think about things the way we did. He said that a lot of smart people said horses were right stupid animals. But he didn't agree with that, hisself. He said they were diff'rent from us, but not stupid. He said their knowledge came through their senses rather than their thoughts. He said they sensed things rather than thought about them. He said when somebody rode one horse a lot, it got to be that that horse and that man riding him sorta talked to each other with their feelings, and the horse got real good at knowin' what the man was thinkin' and the man, even though he weren't as good at it as the horse, could sometimes feel what the horse was feelin', too.
I remembered that talk, and lookin' up at Rusty, standin' over me, I got to thinkin' perhaps he'd felt my panic in that creek. Maybe he had. Maybe he'd felt how scared I was, and figured out I needed him.
Whether that was right or not, it didn't make too much diff'rence. He'd come into that creek and he'd saved me. I knew that. I also knew I couldn't tell anyone. If'n I did, Ma and Pa would be sure to find out, and I'd never be able to swim in that creek again and prob'ly would regret thinkin' how much I'd rather get a whippin' from Pa rather than just some more chorin' to do.
What I did then, though, was stand up and hug Rusty's neck real, real hard. I might have cried a little, too, if I hadn't been seven and past all that.
So that was one of those times I mentioned earlier when he kinda took charge of me. There were another, too. That one weren't scary like the first.
That second time was right recent. I'm writin' it down 'cause Ma's always sayin' that I should keep a journal of stuff about me that talks about how I am and what I'm doin' and thinkin' about. She says when I'm growed I'll be happy to have it. She tells me that people don't remember much about how it was when they was young, and havin' that to read later on is somethin' I might treasure.
I don't know about that, but Ma's pretty smart, and if'n I don't do it and then when I'm old end up wishin' I had, it'll be too late to do it then. I don't see how I'll ever forget any of this, but ifn' I do, I think I might be right pissed at myself for not listenin' to Ma. She says doin' this is kinda important, so I'm doin' it.
So I'm 13 now and Rusty is 17 and just as good a friend as ever. Me'n him spend time together, but me being mostly growed now, I don't have as much time as I did when I was younger. He sometimes gets a touch annoyed with me. I'll come out to feed him of an evenin' and he'll grab his bridle rope off the nail I hang it on and hold it out to me, then shake it some if'n I don't take it. He wants me to take him out and ride him. He gets bored if'n he doesn't get his exercise. I try, but I got more chores now than before. Pa says I'm gettin' to be a man, I got to see what bein' a man is about, and I guess bein' a man is about doin' more chores, 'cause that's what I'm doin'. I also got homework now, and I got some friends I didn't have when I was younger. They want me to spend time with them, and I kinda like doin' that. So sometimes Rusty doesn't get that much of my time.
But I try, and we do ride. And I still talk to him. He's still the one who hears all my secrets. My secrets are diff'rent from the ones I had at seven, but I still got 'em. I talk to him and he'll shake his head and sometimes even turn and poke his head halfway back along his neck and look at me. I'd swear that horse can understand most of what I say.
What I was spendin' a lot of wind talkin' to him about lately was Michael. Michael was this kid in my 8th grade class at school. He'd lived all his life around here just like I had, so I'd known who he was ever since school started, but he lived in town and I lived on our farm and we never knew each other at all. He was just a kid at school, like a lot of the other ones. My friends were mostly farm kids. We all knew the same things and had about the same chores and a bunch of us rode the same bus, so there was a lot in common. I hung with them at school, much as I could.
This bein' 8th grade and most of us 13, some of the boys were feelin' kinda boastful, feelin' like they needed to show some of the other boys they were better'n them. I guess that's how it is when you're that age. Some of those girls that you thought was a waste of time a couple years ago would kinda glance at some of us boys sideways like and kinda flash their eyes and look a little shy, and some of us boys would get to thinkin' maybe we ought to beat up a couple of other boys, show how tough we were. Seemed kinda silly to me. I mean the girl part.
Now the farm boys, we did a lot a chorin' and had been since we were mostly little. Some of us were right strong. Some of us weren't, of course, but a lot of us were. And a lot of the town boys hadn't had to feed the stock and help with the hayin' and the plowin' and all, and they just weren't as tough as we were. And we stuck together more than they did. I didn't know why that was, but it could'a been 'cause there were fewer of us, and it made sense to stick together.
What it come down to was, a lot of the town boys didn't like us none. Which we didn't mind 'cause a lot of them we didn't much like either. We stayed pretty much with us, and they stayed with them. Michael was a town boy; I was a farm boy. I knew his name and that was about it.
'Ceptin' there was more than that now. I didn't know what it was, but in English class this term I had a seat right behind him. So I saw him every day. And for some reason, I'd got to lookin' forward to seein' him every day. Didn't make no sense to me 'cause I didn't look forward to seein' any other boy every day, not even my friends. But I got to noticin', even in the class we had right before English, I had got to lookin' at the clock and waitin' for the class to be over so I could get to English.
Now let me tell you, that had NEVER happened before. Me and English teachers weren't buddies, never were, never would be. I'd always had a bit of trouble with all them English teachers I'd had, but this one was the worst. She didn't like the way I talked, and seemed determined to change it. I didn't see it at all. I talked like my Pa and Ma talked, and that was plenty good enough for us, and that English teacher could just go to hell if she thought she was better'n us. I had news for her. I didn't like the way SHE talked none neither.
So lookin' forward to English was a little confusin' to me, till I recognized it was sittin' behind Michael I was lookin' forward to. I seen it 'cause when I was in my seat my heart would get to beatin' a little faster and my eyes would be stuck to that door, and then I realized I was waitin' for him to come through it. That took me some thinkin' about, and some long talks with Rusty. I talked it over real good with him. He didn't help me none, but the talkin' might have. I always felt a little better, after.
So I had something new to do at school now. Every day, I'd look around me and find out where Michael was. Then I'd be careful not to look there, except now and then. I didn't want anyone thinkin' anythin', and I sure didn't want Michael to think anythin'. 8th grade is a bad time for people to be thinkin' things.
So I spent a lot of time not looking at Michael but knowin' where he was, and once when I was doin' that, he was lookin' at me. I dropped my eyes real quick-like and it was a long time before I looked over at him again, least a minute or so. He was still lookin' at me.
I told my friends I had to get a book out of my locker and moved off. We were all outside in the yard, and I headed for the school door. I got inside and breathed a sigh of relief. My heart was beatin' a little faster than normal for some reason. I walked down the hallway toward the stairs that led to where my locker was, just 'cause I'd said that's where I was goin', and I heard the door open behind me. I turned to look, and there was Michael.
I suppose I need to say what he looks like. He was as big as I was, by that I mean the same tallness. But I was bigger. Neither of us were fat, or even stocky, but I'd been at that chorin' and he hadn't, I guess, 'cause I was just bigger. He had dark brown hair and dark eyes and a small mouth that always seemed to have a cocky-looking grin on it and you shouldn't call boys cute, not if they're 13 and know you're doin' it, but he was. I had brown hair too, but his was a shade or two lighter, and his was combed a lot better. He also was a little shy. Now me, I'm not shy. I think it might be 'cause I'm helpin' run a farm, and I'm right able to do that and help my Pa and I know it. He tells me so, too. I don't have much to be 'shamed of. I'm not the talkiest person in the world, but I say what I want to say when I want to. I don't hold back none 'cause I'm too shy to speak up. Never have, neither. Remember when I said about that extra chorin'? That's what I mean.
He dressed some better than I did. I wore what us farm boys wore, tee shirts and jeans, tennis shoes and that was about it. Michael wore shirts with collars, and while he sometimes wore jeans, they were better lookin' than the one's I wore. He wore other kinds of pants, too, and some of them had a crease down each leg right in the front. He wore regular shoes, too, sometimes. Not that I paid that much attention.
Michael was shyer'n me. I didn't know him well, but since I'd started knowin' where he was all the time, it seemed I also happened to be near enough to overhear when he was with his friends, and they talked and he listened, and I noticed, the few times I did look at him, he was lookin' down a lot and sometimes blushin' and I could just tell, he was kinda shy. Nuthin' wrong with that. Lots of kids are shy. Don't matter none to me. But he was.
The reason I bring it up at all is, I was surprised he had followed me into the buildin'. I didn't think he'd do that, even if he did think I had been lookin' at him, which I was pretty sure he didn't. I didn't do it that much. Not that he'd notice at least.
Then I thought maybe he'd come in for somethin' that didn't have nuthin' at all to do with me. That made my heart slow down a bit, thinkin' that. Maybe I wouldn't have to talk to him at all.
I'd stopped when I'd seen him, and he was comin' closer. Then he was there, and I was thinkin', 'walk on by me, keep goin'.' I turned so my back was to him and started fiddlin' with the lock on a locker right where I was. I wasn't lookin' at him. But I heard his feet stop.
I went right on fiddlin' with that lock. It weren't my locker, but once you start fiddlin' with a lock, you can't pretty much just stop. I couldn't think of a single reason in the world why I'd do that what didn't sound silly as all get out.
So I kept on fiddlin', and he kept on standing there, and finally, pretty sure my face was about the color of some of the stripes on that flag in our classroom, not the white ones, neither, I turned around. He had that smile of his on his face, the one that makes my stomach feel sorta funny.
He looked at me, and I looked at him. Then he said the craziest thing.
"Twenty-four ten fourteen."
"Twenty-four ten fourteen."
"What are you talkin' about?"
"That's the combination. That's my locker."
Now, my face was red before, but it must of got redder. Had to. Michael's grin got bigger. I didn't know what to do. He wasn't helpin' any, and finally I did the only thing I knew how to do. I mumbled, "Oops, wrong locker, sorry," and turned and started walkin' fast down the hall. I'd gone about fifteen steps or so when he called to me.
I stopped. I was still blushin', but he'd called and I couldn't pretend I hadn't heard him. So I stopped and turned around.
"Your locker isn't even on this floor, is it?"
I just looked at him, and he broke out laughin'. He laughed really hard, the longer he looked at me. I was embarrassed, and then got mad that he was laughin' at me, and then, for some reason I couldn't even think what was, I started laughin' too. Talk about makin' no sense. What did I have to laugh about? But seein' him do it, and feelin' so embarrassed, it just happened.
He finally stopped, and just as I was about to turn around, he waved at me, then turned and walked back outside. I watched him walk all the way to the door, and then through it. And what I was thinking was, he hadn't opened his locker. So, why had he come in?
That was my first time that I had anythin' to do with him, really. After that, I found it much harder to keep track of him, because I couldn't look at him any more. I mean, I wanted to. I sure enough wanted to. But I could only do it in English, because his back was to me there, and if he turned around, I'd have my eyes elsewhere by the time he was around far enough to see where I was lookin'. And it never was at him. But anywhere else, I couldn't do it. Because whenever I tried, he was lookin' at me.
And I'd thought he was shy. Now I had to consider that. 'Cause when I looked at him, he didn't look away like I did. I still did that. 'Ceptin' as I never looked at him now, I had no need to do that. Only a few times is all.
We went along like this, neither one of us doin' anythin' more than lookin'. I sure wasn't gonna talk to him. What would I say? Just lookin' at him made my stomach feel like it was itchin' inside. Speakin' to him would be worse. Or maybe he'd end up laughin' at me again. I sorta hated that and wished it would happen again. Kinda confused, is what I was.
Miss Bonner was makin' my life miserable. It was a funny feelin', lookin' forward to English, then sufferin' through it. Lookin' at the way Michael's hair was growin' every day and curlin' over his shirt collar, wantin' so much to reach out and just touch that curl. He had gym class earlier in the day and like most of us, didn't shower. I could imagine him dryin' hisself off with a towel, puttin' on a extra dose of deodorant, then goin' to his next class. The one after that was English. And by English, if the day were warm, boys who'd had gym had a odor. I'd catch Michael's and hoped Miss Bonner had no reason to make me stand up. His odor was deodorant and him. I got to know that odor. I got to hopin' he worked up quite a sweat in gym.
So part of those English classes were pretty great. But the part where we had to read out loud weren't. I weren't a great reader, and then Miss Bonner had to correct how I said things. And if'n she went on with that too much, I'd start gettin' angry. I don't think she was tryin' to make me mad, but she sure didn't seem to notice when it was happenin'. And this one day, she just went too far.
"Paul, that word is pronounced 'trying.' Not 'tryin'.' You have to pronounce it correctly, saying the full 'ing' sound. Here, try these words: sing, ring, ding, wing."
I looked at her, and begin to get red in the face. She'd already stopped me and corrected me several times, and now this. She wanted me to say those silly words in front of the class. All the town boys were already snickerin', and she wanted me to say these words, and all of them were sorta girlish, and I'd say all of them wrong. Well, I weren't gonna do it. I knew what would happen. Everyone would be laughin'. Michael would be laughin'. I'd look stupid. And if'n I did say 'em, I'd be hearin' those words chanted at me in the lunchroom and on the playground for the rest of the year. Shit.
I just looked at her. I couldn't. Detention would be better.
I didn't say anything. Just looked back and kept my mouth shut. That seemed safest. What could they do? Detention. Then if she did it again, maybe they'd kick me out. And maybe that wouldn't be bad, the way I was feelin' right then. I could work fulltime with Pa.
"Paul? Sing, ring, ding, wing. Please say them."
I continued to look at her.
She was startin' to get red, too. Not a lot, nuthin' like my red, but red. She didn't know if I were showin' her up. Teachers can't stand it if someone shows them up. Bein' disrespectful to a teacher is like wavin' a red flag at a bull. Maybe worse, 'cause I waved a red flag at a bull once and nuthin' happened. 'Course, he was way across the field and I was just inside the fence, ready to bolt should he take a notion to come over and check that flag out. Actually it was my shirt, but it was red, so I didn't see no diff'rence, and that don't make no never-you-mind anyway.
I'd never been disrespectful to a teacher before, and I really weren't now, neither. I just was refusin' to let her humiliate me. I was gonna get in trouble either way, talkin' or not talkin', and I had rather be in trouble with the school than with the kids. Much rather.
Miss Bonner didn't know what to do. Maybe if'n she'd been a teacher for a few years she'd a knowed, but she was brand new. She could figure out by now that I wasn't gonna to do what she wanted. What she couldn't figure out was how to get either of us out of this. She'd told me to do somethin', and I wasn't doin' it. Now what?
I saw her make up her mind. She was gonna to send me to the office. I knew it, and started to gather up my books even before she spoke.
I got interrupted, though. We both did.
Her eyes moved from me to the desk in front of me.
Michael gave out a weird kinda moan, sorta twisted around a couple times, moaned again, twisted again so he was lookin' at me and mouthed, "Help me!" and twisted back, moaned again and collapsed on his desk.
I jumped up, worried about him but also because he'd told me to help him. Miss Bonner was standin' still at the front of the room and hadn't moved, a sorta shocked look on her face. I bent over Michael, and he said, loud enough so others could hear, "My stomach, got to get to the bathroom, help me! Oooooh."
He staggered to his feet, and because I was up too, he reached for me. He threw his arm around my neck, and started up between the desks to the front. I had to go with him. He was pullin' me along.
We got to the front, right near where Miss Bonner was standin', and he said, "Bathroom," again, almost whisperin', one hand clutchin' his stomach, the other 'round my neck, and we made it to the door and out.
He kept sorta stumblin' along, still holdin' on to me. I didn't know if he were fakin' or not. I sorta thought he was, and sorta thought he weren't.
"See if she's lookin'," he said to me so just I could hear. I managed to halfway turn back, and she was in the doorway, lookin' concerned. I might not be able to talk like she wanted me to, but I wasn't stupid, neither. "I'll stay with him," I called to her, then turned back to lookin' where we were goin'.
We made it to the boy's room, and when we were inside, Michael moaned again. This time it ended in a giggle.
He stood up straight and took his arm from around my neck. "Aren't you going to thank me?"
"Thank you?" I took a step back away from him then and just looked at him. He was relaxed and had started to grin, and that grin on his face grew bigger than usual.
"I saved you. And you know it, too."
And I did. I realized what he'd done. I also realized I was talkin' to him. And his grin. And that he was talkin' to me. Maybe he wasn't shy. Maybe he just didn't talk too much. Sorta like me.
I didn't know what to say, but then did.
"Well, she was being a bitch. She had no right to put you on the spot like that. Besides, I like the way you talk."
"Sure, it sounds cool. Sort of soft and comfortable. I even...."
He stopped and I waited, but he started to go red. I was gonna ask why, but then remembered he'd saved me from total embarrassment. Humiliation, really. He was clearly embarrassed now, and I wasn't about to add to that after what he'd done for me.
"How long you think we can wait in here?" I asked. I'd never done anythin' like this before.
"I don't know, but maybe till just before the bell rings. She'll be wondering about me, wondering if she should call the nurse, and I don't want her doing that. The bell's about to ring anyway. Why don't we go back and wait outside the door? Then, after everyone's gone, we can go talk to her."
"Hey, I don't want to talk to her!"
"You don't have to. I'll do the talking."
"What are you gonna say?"
"I'll think of something."
That didn't sound right to me. He'd said he wanted to talk to her. Now he said he'd think of something. I figured it out pretty quick: he didn't want to tell me. Okay. I could deal with that. I'd know in a couple of minutes anyhow.
We left the bathroom and walked down the hall together, neither of us sayin' anythin'. Once I turned to look at him. He felt it, I guess, 'cause he turned too, and grinned.
I wished he wouldn't do that. Now that I was close to him, it made my stomach feel even funnier, and maybe lower, too.
We got to the door just as the bell rang. We stopped, and the kids all came pourin' out. Most of them looked at us but no one stopped. They had their last class comin' up and had to scoot. We only had a bit of time between classes. You couldn't be dawdlin'.
When they was gone, we went in. Michael was in front. He walked right up to Miss Bonner. I did too, but was sorta hangin' back as well. Behind Michael. Now don't get the wrong idea here. I'm not shy, and I weren't afraid of her. He was just in front, that's all.
"Are you all right, Michael?"
"Yeah, that was close, but I'm okay. Thanks for letting me go like that. It wouldn't have been good for anyone if I'd waited."
He grinned at her. I was sure 'cause from behind I could see his cheeks wrinkle.
"Uh, could you like, uh, maybe apologize to Paul?"
I couldn't see what his face looked like, but I could see hers. I was some surprised by what he said, and could imagine all sorts of things she might say back, and all sorts of expressions on her face. I couldn't, though, imagine the one I did see. She looked at him, then at me, and blushed, and looked, well, apologetic.
"Oh, Paul. I'm so sorry." That's what she said. She really said that. I sorta stepped out from behind Michael so I could hear better.
"I forgot all about what you must be feeling. I just got caught up in trying to help a little, and then it was too late. I wasn't helping at all. I'm really sorry. I won't do that again."
"Huh?" Okay, that wasn't the smartest thing to say, but I was just about stunned there. I didn't know what to say. Michael saved me. Again.
"Miss Bonner, I was thinking maybe I could work with Paul, after school maybe. Maybe he could come over to my house, or I could get a ride to his. I like the way he talks, but I know what you want. He's real smart and if I work with him, I think he can do better. You think that might be okay? But either way, it isn't good to say things to him in class about it."
"No, you're right about that. I was wrong, and I do apologize, Paul. I think that is a great idea you have, to work with him Michael. Thank you."
"And can we each have a late slip?"
"Of course." And she wrote one out for each of us. We got them and left the classroom together. Outside, we walked away from her door so no one could hear us. We were in the empty hall, just the two of us.
"What was all that about you helpin' me? I don't need any help. There's nuthin' wrong with me!" That might have sounded like I was mad. Well, I guess I was a little mad, but only a little. Mostly I was confused. I weren't sure what had just happened.
He looked at me and there was no grin on his face. He was thinkin' what to say, I could see that pretty clear.
He thought for a moment or two, then asked, "Does your late slip say the same as mine? Mine doesn't give any time or anything, just asks my teacher to excuse me because she held me up. Yours probably says the same thing."
I looked at him like a fool. I seemed to be doing that a lot lately. I was beginning to think he was maybe a little smarter than I was.
"Yeah, that's what mine says. So what?"
"It means we have some time to talk. It means we don't have to get right to class. Come on."
And he started walking down the hall. I hurried to catch up to him.
"Where you goin'?"
"Just looking for an empty classroom where we can talk."
He was lookin' in windows as we passed each door. He finally found what he wanted and tried the doorknob. It turned, and pretty quick we were inside. He shut the door.
"Let's sit down. No, back here so we can't be seen from the window."
We sat down in the back of the classroom. Next to each other, not like in English. Now we could see each other's face.
I waited for him to speak. He seemed to know what he was doin', and I didn't have a clue.
He started to say somethin', then stopped. He did that a couple of times. He spent some time lookin' down at the desk he was sittin' at, too.
When he finally did speak, he said, "This is hard. I didn't realize it would be this hard. But it is. But if I don't say it, I'll go crazy. I hope you're not mad at me. And won't be. It's just, well...." He stopped then and studied that desk some more. His face was sorta red and I thought he was embarrassed. I didn't know why. Embarrassed or not, grinnin' or not, he was still real cute, and sittin' here alone with him, I felt real good. I was all over my anger.
"Paul." He stopped, and then, kinda desperately said, all in a rush, "Paul, I've seen you looking at me. I wondered why. Most of the farm kids don't like us town kids much, and at first, I was a little worried maybe you didn't like me at all and maybe were thinking of doing something about that. But you seemed to keep looking, and you didn't look mad or anything. So I started sorta looking back, and after a while, I kinda liked looking at you, which is funny because I'd never looked at another boy like I was looking at you. Before. I mean."
He stopped then. He'd been talkin' mostly to the desk, and what he'd said he'd sorta blurted out, like if he stopped he might not get it said, but when he finished he dared raise his eyes. He raised them then and looked square at me, prob'ly wantin' to know how I was takin' this.
He evidently didn't see anythin' that bothered him much because he seemed to take a breath and went on. "It's scary talking to you like this, but I've been thinking about you a lot, and wondering why you were looking at me, and I sort of got the idea I might know why. And it's been driving me a little crazy, too, because as much as you've been looking, and I've been looking, neither of us have really been, like, doing anything but looking."
He stopped then, and looked at me again, and then said, "Maybe I'm all wrong about this. If I am, I'm really sorry. But I thought maybe, just maybe, you were thinking the same things I was thinking, and if so, I, well, I sort of wanted you to know what I was thinking."
There was silence then. It went on a bit. He'd look down, then look up again, then down. Surprisin'ly, I seemed to be doing the same thing. Occasionally, our eyes would meet, and then we'd both sorta blush a little and both look down again.
Eventually, I heard him say, "Paul?"
"Yeah?" My voice sounded sorta scratchy, not exactly like me.
"Uh, I think it's your turn. Can you say something?"
No, I couldn't. Didn't want to. Liked just thinkin' about what he'd said. I could think about that for a long time. I liked what he'd said, and a lot, too. And I wanted more time to think about it. To digest it. But I realized, he must be wonderin' how I felt about what he'd said, and I owed him to tell him.
"Uh, Michael. It's sorta embarrassin'. But yeah, you've been brave enough. I guess I can be. I noticed you. I mean, I've knowed you for a long time, just as you've knowed me. I don't know quite how to talk about it. But I started looking at you for no reason I can explain, then found I couldn't really stop looking at you. And then realized I didn't want to stop. But I knew I should, and then that day I knowed you'd seen me looking, I had to do something, so I walked away, into the school. And you followed me. I didn't know what to do so stopped at that locker, and you know what happened then.
"Well, when you laughed, I should have got angry, and almost did, but then I laughed too, and the things I was feelin', well, I got to feelin' them a lot more after that. And I spent some time thinkin' about you too. But I couldn't say anythin' or do anythin' and I don't know how in the world you got the guts to say what you just did. Or do what you just did with Miss Bonner. You're amazin'!"
He grinned a really bashful grin, and I started to go hard. I had to look away.
I was still looking away when he started talkin'. "I got to thinking, that's all, and I thought that what I said to her would give us a reason to be together, after school. I mean, if we needed one. You could tell your parents, and I could tell mine, that we needed to work together. I'd have a reason to come to your house and you'd have one to come to mine, and no one would be able to say no, and if there was any doubt, not that there would be, but if there was, they could call Miss Bonner and she'd say yeah, we'd talked to her about it and she was all for it."
He grinned at me again. I was really likin' that grin.
"So, you want to do it then?"
"Get together after school some times?"
"Oh, yeah. Yeah, I really do. Hey, Michael, I'm not as dumb as I've been soundin'. It's just a whole lot has happened here real fast, and I guess I'm not as good with fast as you are."
I grinned at him then. Maybe my grin is pretty good too, 'cause I'd swear I saw some movement in his crotch. Not that I was lookin' at it at all.
So that's about how it happened that we started to get together. Can you believe he'd never ridden a horse before? He hadn't. But I got him ridin'. He got to know Rusty, too, and Rusty liked him. It might have been that sensin' thing I talked about before, but Rusty isn't always that good with strangers, and he took to Michael right away.
By the time summer come around again, Michael and I were really good friends. After we'd spent some time together, I'd actually been a little awkward about sayin' it, but had managed to ask him if he really would help me with my grammar and pronouncin'. He'd been really good about it, just like he was with everythin'. He didn't embarrass me or make me feel dumb and all. He said the best way might be to just tell me when I said somethin' that maybe could be said better. And then when I said somethin' wrong, he didn't say anything like, "Hey, dumbass, you said, blah, and it should have been such and such." No, instead he said, "Paul, you might want to try saying that this way," and then suggested the right way. Sometimes he'd even tell me why what I said was wrong and why a diff'rent way was right. I'm not dumb, I just spoke the way I heard everyone else around me speak. Michael was the first one who'd ever spoken correctly around me. I listened and learned. It wasn't that hard.
I also asked him one time, 'cause it'd been botherin' me some. We were in his room. He was sprawled on his bed, lookin' at me, and I was trying not to look at him too much because, well, even now that I knew him and we'd more or less said we liked each other, it was still easy to get excited if I looked at him too much, and sprawled out like that I sort had to be careful it didn't become too obvious just how much I liked him. So, to get my mind off'n that, I brought up somethin' I'd been thinkin' on for quite a spell.
"Michael, would you tell me somethin'?"
"Sure." He was tired, and his voice showed it. We'd been playing tag football with a bunch of his friends and both of us had been runnin' a lot.
"I don't understand what happened that day when Miss Bonner was gettin' on me for the way I pronounce things. When you pretended you were sick. When you spoke to her, after, I sorta felt like I was in a science fiction movie. None of that made any sense. It didn't seem real. You told her she should apologize to me. I never heard a kid say that to a teacher. And then she did it. She apologized to me more than once even, and she meant it. I've thought about that a lot, and still don't get it. What happened there? Why did you say that, and why did she apologize?"
Michael sat up then. He looked at me, then away. He always did that when he was thinking how to say somethin'. He acted like he sometimes didn't want to hurt my feelin's. He thought some, then looked me right in the eyes.
"You know what my dad does, don't you?"
"No. You've never said."
"I guess there was never any reason to. He's on the town council. He's a lawyer, but he's also on the council. He tells Mom and me about stuff they discuss at their meetings. They talk about problems the town has, and what he thinks is the best way to handle them."
"What does that have to do with Miss Bonner and you talkin' to her like you did?"
He gave me his grin, then, and said, "Dang, but you're impatient. I'm getting there. Hold on."
I grinned back. It was hard not to. He made everythin' happy when he grinned like that.
"Paul, one of the problems they talked about recently was that a lot of farm kids are dropping out of school before they graduate. They're looking into why that happens. Dad says it's tragic, because farm kids need an education just as much as town kids. Anyway, they talked, and had some people in who knew about this to talk to them. Well, it turns out, one of the reasons farm kids drop out is just what happened to you. They get put on the spot by teachers, and then other kids start teasing them for it, and these kids think to themselves, 'Why should I go through this? I'm going to be working on that farm the rest of my life, I don't need to put up with this crap!' And so they drop out. That's one of the reasons they do that.
"And because of that, I know that the school administrators and town council had a big meeting, and the teachers were told how important it was not to put the farm kids in embarrassing positions. All kids had to be taught proper English, but they weren't to be embarrassed for the way they talked. Miss Bonner is a new teacher, and I like her. She was trying to help you, Paul, but she forgot about that not embarrassing anyone rule. She was so sure she could get you to talk differently, her enthusiasm got in the way of seeing how you were reacting.
"When she was doing that, and I could see you getting embarrassed, I thought about what my dad had said, about farm kids dropping out. And I got a little scared, because I thought you might want to do that. And I didn't want you to. So I did what I did, but it was partly because I was selfish and didn't want you not to be at that school with me.
"There was a little more to it, too. When we went back to talk to her, I was also a little angry. I knew her intentions were good. I just was angry because she'd hurt you, doing what she did. And I wanted her to think about that. I didn't know if she'd get angry with me or not, and I didn't care. If she'd gotten mad at me, I was going to get mad at her right back. I was a little surprised, too, that she was so apologetic, but she should have been. What she did to you was wrong."
At home that night, layin' in bed before I fell asleep, I thought a lot about that. I thought about Miss Bonner, and about Michael, and about me, too. I decided I wasn't going to drop out of school. I also decided I was going to learn to speak proper. Properly. I was going to get Michael to help me.
I had a grin on my face when I fell asleep that night.
So everthin' with me and—. Damn. So everythin' with Michael and me was fine. Really good, in fact. There was only one thing. One little thing. He slept over at my house some, and I slept at his. We both liked each other. That was real clear. But we both were also just, well, we didn't really know how to get started with each other. I think we both wanted to, but if either of us thought about it, we never did talk about it. We were 13 and not at all sure of ourselves or even what we wanted. I could see in his eyes he wanted what I wanted. But it was sorta like when we didn't know each other and would just look, then look away. Neither of us seemed to know what to do. At night when he was sleeping over at my place and we were out behind the barn, watching the stars and talking, leaning back against the old red boards and soaking up the night and each other's presence, I'd take his hand in mine. That was the most we'd ever done. I know, that sounds like nuthin', but when you're 13 and never have done nuthin' and are sorta afraid to, even with wantin' to so bad it hurts sometimes, it's a lot. I know when I did it, my heart was really pumpin' fast. So it might not sound like a lot, but it was. At least it seemed like it was to both of us.
That did change, and what changed it was what I started talkin' about, a long time ago it seems. Rusty changed it. Remember when I said a couple of times he changed my life, thinkin' he was the boss of me? Well, the first was when he took it into his mind to save my life. The second time was with Michael.
It was summer, it was hot, and Michael and I—he told me I shouldn't be sayin', 'me and Michael,' and I'd been tryin'—were ridin'. I was on Rusty of course, and he was on Ma's horse, Lucy. He rode Lucy more'n Ma did. They got along fine. Lucy was real gentle and Michael was gettin' to be a pretty fair rider. I'd been teachin' him horse as much as he'd been teachin' me English.
We were just slow walkin' the horses, and Michael was complainin' about the heat. Even the way he whined about things was cute, and I was sorta laughin', but what I was feelin' that day, I don't know, I was feelin' like I really wanted Michael. I guess you'd just say I was horny as all get out, but that isn't exactly right either. But it were mostly true.
I really, really wanted him. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted him to kiss me. And the need was pressin' on me somethin' fierce. More'n usual, and that's sayin' somethin'. It was so bad, so urgent, so necessary, that even Rusty could feel it. As I've said, horses sense things humans can't, and it was like he was on my wavelength that day, maybe 'cause I was feelin' what I was feelin' so strong. But I knew him like he knew me, and just the way his muscles were ripplin' under my butt and between my knees, I could tell he was gettin' as agitated as I was. Watchin' Michael that day, was, well, I can't describe it, and horny doesn't do it justice because it was my soul that wanted him as much as, well, as any other part of me.
But as I was sayin', he was whinin' about the heat, and I stopped thinkin' about wantin' him, and I got an idea. He'd never been to the creek.
"You feel like coolin' off some?"
"Sure. That'd be great, but how're you planning on doing that?"
"You know how to swim, don't you? You city boys all got pools, I guess."
"Well, no, most of us don't have a pool, but the city does, and my family gets a season ticket every year. But how're we going to get into town?"
"Don't hafta. Follow me." And I pushed Rusty up into a gallop. He loved runnin' and I didn't have to do more than push my pelvis forward and he was off. Michael had learned how to gallop without fallin' off much, and he was right behind me.
We got into the woods and slowed down, and then we were at the creek. It was just as pretty as the last time I'd been here, and I realized I'd missed it. I'd been busy and it had been awhile.
I dismounted and walked over to the creek, lettin' Rusty's reins drop. He came with me and got hisself a drink. Michael came over too and stood beside me.
"This place is beautiful," he said, some awe in his voice.
"Yeah, it is. I almost died here when I was seven. The water was movin' fast and I sorta got swept up in it. Rusty came into the water and saved me."
Michael looked at me and his eyes got large. "Really?"
"Yep. Without him, I'd a been a gonner. But he was there for me. Weren't you, boy?" And I patted him on his sturdy neck. He nickered and nuzzled my cheek. I giggled. That always tickled when he did that.
Michael was looking at us. Finally he looked away, and eventually said, "Too bad we didn't bring suits. It does look great. And cool!"
"Suits? What is it with you city boys? Suits! I've been swimmin' here all my life, Michael. Never once wore a suit!"
And with that, I started shuckin' off my clothes.
Now I'd never seen him naked, nor him me. I'd swum naked here so many times, it just came natural to me, to go swimmin' you just got undressed, and I didn't really give it a thought. All I was thinkin' was gettin' in that cool water.
But I'd just dropped my undies and had taken a step towards the water when it struck me what I was doin', where I was, who I was with, and I stopped and looked at Michael.
He hadn't moved. He'd just watched me. He was still fully dressed, and his eyes were large and on me, but low on me. And his crotch was sticking out about as far as the denim would let it.
Now this could have been really embarrassin'. I mean it was, but it just didn't last very long. He was lookin' at me, and I was lookin' at him, and we were both starting to turn red, when suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt this large hairy force in my back that pushed me right into Michael. Rusty had put his nose in my back and just shoved us together. Michael was standin' on the edge of the creek, and I was pushed right into him, and he sorta naturally wrapped his arms around me, and then we were both in the water.
It was about ten inches deep right there, and the bottom was soft mud, so he only got wet and muddy. I was on top of him, naked and laughing. He looked at me, surprised, and then there was that grin, and then he was kissing me, and I was kissing him. And that went on for a while, quite a while, and in the middle of it, I heard a loud whinny that sounded quite a bit like a laugh, but who was payin' any mind at all to a silly old horse who prob'ly saved us a whole summer which would have been wasted by not knowin' how to do nuthin' but be shy with each other?
Somehow, Michael ended up undressed, we washed the mud out of his clothes and hung them in the trees in the sun, and then enjoyed the creek and each other. It was the best day of my life.
That's really all I have to say, except there's one more thing I ought to write here. We both had English together in 9th grade, and Miss Bonner was teachin' that class that year. When it was the first day, before class we walked up to her.
"Michael! Paul! I'm so happy to have you two again! I thought about you two over the summer. And I've been wondering. Did you do it? Did you get together? Paul, have you been working on things at all?"
I spoke right up to her. I said, "Miss Bonner, Michael's been working with me and I've been trying, and I think you'll hear me speak just a little better this year. He told you I was smart. I don't know about that, but I do know he is. He's smarter than anybody, I think, and he's a great teacher. We'll be working and studying some more together this year, mostly because I still need a lot of help. But I'm pretty sure you can already hear a difference."
She was standing there and I'm telling this truthfully: her mouth was hanging a little bit open. She looked shocked. "Paul!" she said, and then, by god, she hugged me! Right there in front of the class! I got a little embarrassed, but I'm not shy so it really didn't bother me any.
She turned to Michael then and said, "Michael, I don't know how you did it, but it's a wonder, what you've done."
And Michael, with his own grin on his face, said, "Aw, twern't nuthin, Miss B. I just been sorta hangin' with Paul some, and I'm a guessin' some a me just rubbed off on him a bit. 'Magine somthin' like that happenin'! But, glad I were makin' a diff'rence, ma'am."
I was out riding a couple of weeks later. Just Rusty and me, after school late in the afternoon. Michael was rehearsing for the school play. He'd wanted me to go out for it too, and I'd actually thought about it some, but decided I couldn't.
I've been thinking lately about how I've been saying I'm not shy, and maybe I've been fooling myself. Maybe I am, a little. I need to work on that, but trying to work on it in front of the entire school up on the stage is too big a step. It would be a giant step, and baby ones might suit me better.
I've been working hard on my speech, and am doing better. If I can do that, I can probably do better about not being so shy, either. All it'll take is some hard work. I know I can do it.
I talked it over with Rusty. He agreed with me. He agreed about working on the shyness, and with not doing it by being in that play. So instead of rehearsing, I was riding. I might have enjoyed rehearsing. I know I would have liked spending that extra time with Michael. But I liked spending the extra time with Rusty, too.
The way he was shaking his head and jigging, doing little dancing sidesteps now and then as we were walking through that pasture, the way he was nickering at me as I spoke to him, I knew he liked spending this extra time with me, too. And I did owe him some. My life, being with Michael like I now was: hell, I owed him everything.
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