Unwrapped | Sloan & Lars
This short story originally appeared in the Midwest Fiction Writers’ anthology Love in the Land of Lakes. Fans of Kiss the Girl will recognize Sloan & Lars, whose journey to happily ever after definitely deserved a story of its own.
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Lake Superior, midnight
Sloan Leighton huddled deeper into the filthy rag that passed for wardrobe on a Lars Von Heller picture and wondered what had been so bad about being a movie star. Extravagant trailers? Personal chefs? Her own team of makeup artists? What exactly had she objected to? Maybe she’d never won an Oscar, but hey, she’d never frozen to death either.
She sat shivering on a damp slab of granite not ten feet from the moonlit gnash of Lake Superior’s teeth and glared at the man responsible for her imminent hypothermia. For her ridiculous decision to abandon stardom for acting, and at fifty years old, for heaven’s sake.
Lars Von Heller—legendary director and current pain in Sloan’s numb ass—only frowned and ordered yet another adjustment to the lighting for the next shot. She sent him a poisonous smile. He didn’t notice. He never did.
Typical, she thought bitterly. He was a serious director, after all. And if the wrinkled shirttails and the haystack hair didn’t give it away, there was always the fact that he’d cheerfully allow his stars to die of exposure rather than film a night scene with improper lighting.
“Any idea on when we’ll shoot, Lars?” Sloan called sweetly. “If it’s going to be another two hours, I’ll go ahead and sell my soul for a cup of coffee and a pair of wool socks.”
“We’re getting there. Christ.” Lars strode past her without a glance, a muscular pair of headphones still covering one ear, a clipboard clenched under one stout arm. “Keep your damn shirt on.”
“Oh, I will.” Sloan gave a tinkling laugh. “You haven’t even bought me a drink. A girl has her standards.”
He ignored that—ignoring Sloan was one of Lars’ many talents—and disappeared into the mouth of the mineshaft where they’d shoot their next scene. The light crew scurried after him like he was Jesus on the mount and they didn’t want to miss a word of the sermon. Sloan sighed. Had she really fallen in love with this man?
Well, yes. It beggared the imagination, but there it was. She, Sloan Leighton, the movie star of her generation (though not, it had to be noted, the talent,) had somehow fallen in love with Lars Von Heller, a short-tempered, thick-set auteur of a director who spoke to her exclusively in surly growls. When he spoke to her at all.
Love, she thought with grim amusement, was a mysterious thing. She had no idea how or even when it had happened. All she knew for certain was that if Lars ever caught the barest whiff of it, she’d have to kill herself.
Then again, what did it matter? She was probably going to freeze to death within the hour anyway. She glanced at her co-star lounging on the damp slab of rock next to her own. Not him, though. No, Justin Stone all but vibrated with youthful enthusiasm beside her, as impervious to the elements as a well-trained hunting dog. She didn’t hate him, she told herself. She hated his youth. Surely that was it.
He caught her glance and returned it with the soulful smolder that sold movie tickets by the bushel basket. “Sloan,” he said, leaning in confidentially, “you have to tell me.”
“Tell you what, darling?” Were her lips blue? She bet they were.
“Of your success. I mean, you’re fifty.” He grimaced sympathetically and Sloan decided she did hate him. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
“Thank you.” She managed a smile at that. “It was the happiest one I’ve ever had.” And it had been. A woman’s only daughter didn’t get married every day, after all. Nixie had been hesitant about getting married on Sloan’s birthday—her fiftieth, no less—but Sloan had insisted. How else was a woman supposed to survive such a mortifying milestone? Sloan had wanted a distraction, and her darling daughter had provided, big time.
“Most women your age can’t get a role to save their lives,” Justin went on. “But you? You’re still selling magazines and headlining movies. And for Lars Von Heller, no less.” He spoke the name with a hushed reverence that strained Sloan’s smile. “So you’re clearly doing something different,” he went on relentlessly. “Something right.” He leaned in as if he hadn’t just insulted her with a smile on his handsome face. Probably didn’t realize he had. Good smolder, Sloan thought. Not overly bright. “And I want to know what it is.”
“Well, darling, I’ll be frank.” Great. I’ll be Ernest. She paused but the kid missed his line. “Most of it is luck.”
“Luck.” He made the word a verbal eye roll.
“It’s true. I was blessed with good bones and a decent figure.” And the miraculous return of the girdle but, God, I miss wine. She put her smile on the slow burn. “Both of which the camera loves.” If I hand-pick the photographer and diva out over the lighting, anyway.
“It sure does.” Justin leaned in a touch farther, met her smolder halfway. God, this kid was exhausting.
“But mostly,” she said, “it’s because I follow three simple rules.”
He all but jumped into her lap. “Rules?”
“Yes, darling. Rules.”
“And they are…?”
She bit her lip and looked away, a reflexive bit of coy reluctance. Nothing good was ever free, and Sloan was better than good. She was amazing. Then Justin’s gaze went from soulful to hot, and Sloan dropped the pretense with a horrified jolt. Oh, dear God, did he think she wanted him to kiss her? She was an aging sex pot, yes, but she wasn’t a desperate cougar.
Which was evidently splitting hairs to Justin’s way of thinking.
A greasy exhaustion lapped at her. Oh, screw it. She was just going to tell the kid the truth. Not that it would matter. Nobody listened when Sloan talked. The Cassandra Effect, her late husband Archer used to call it, after that poor Greek woman doomed to foretell the truth only to be disbelieved. But in Sloan’s case, it was more distraction than disbelief. She could pony up a solution to unrest in the Middle East and people would only smile vaguely and keep staring at her boobs.
Everybody except Archer, who had been strangely and blessedly immune to her cleavage. And Lars, she thought sourly. Who appeared immune to both her cleavage and her conversation. Which made her miss Archer that much more.
Because more even than the occasional glass of wine, she missed having a man in her life who talked to her. Who listened when she talked. And she hadn’t had that since Archer. Losing him had put her soul into a twenty year deep freeze, one she hadn’t even thought about fighting until she’d realized how close she was to losing their girl, too. And Sloan, by God, had lost enough. She wasn’t about to lose Nixie.
Coming back to life had hurt but not as much as she’d feared. Grief still sucker punched her at the odd moment here and there, but it was a bittersweet ache these days rather than the devastating slice she remembered.
And sometimes—like now—it was just the warm glow of remembered love. Good old Archer. He’d have enjoyed the hell out of this conversation.
“Rule number one,” Sloan said. “Never mistake being lucky for being special.” Justin nodded wisely. “This means being on time every day, having your lines cold and treating the crew like fellow human beings.” The nodding slowed and Sloan could see she’d have to be more specific. “Learn their names, Justin. Ask about their families.” She waved a hand. “Bring them cupcakes.”
“Trust me. The ladies in makeup like their sugar.” She aimed a finger at him. “Rule number two? Never screw your fans. Know what they want from you and give it to them.” Even if what they want from you is a love life that would exhaust Elizabeth Taylor.
Justin opened his mouth and Sloan cut off the protest with a lifted hand. “Listen to mommy, darling. For every actor who played against type and won an Oscar, there are fifty others who can’t get a used car commercial anymore.”
Justin shuddered and closed his mouth.
“I know, right?” Sloan blew on her numb hands and delivered the biggie. “And rule number three? Never fall in love on the set.”
Justin stared, too shocked to smolder. Then he laughed. “Jesus, Sloan, you had me going for a minute there.”
Sloan laughed, too. “Did I?”
“You’ve met, like, five of your husbands on movie sets.”
She lowered her eyes demurely. She did not look at the mineshaft. “True enough.”
“And you’re playing a hag in this film. An actual witch. Which—in case you hadn’t noticed—is way against type for Chat Magazine’s Most Beautiful Woman Alive.”
Sloan grimaced and plucked at the filthy dress clinging limply to her thigh. “I’d noticed.”
“And the wardrobe ladies think you’re a whiner.”
“Oh, I am. Justifiably. Look at what I’m wearing.” Sloan smiled winningly. “But I bring them cupcakes.”
A girl appeared at Justin’s elbow. She had bad skin, colorless hair and a clipboard clutched to her big, fluffy parka. “Mr. Von Heller is ready for you guys,” she announced breathlessly, her eyes skating away from Justin’s smolder.
“Thank you, Madison.” Sloan envied her that parka with her whole soul. She cut a look at Justin and mouthed names.
“You’re something else, Sloan.” He pushed to his feet with an admiring chuckle and held out a hand. “People warned me about you, you know. They said you were a man eater, a diva. They said you were dangerous. Nobody said you were funny.”
Sloan came to her feet with a toss of her trademark cinnamon curls. They slapped her cheek in a damp tangle. “Laugh while you can, darling.” She squared her shoulders and aimed herself at the mouth of the mineshaft. At the scene they were about to shoot. The one she was pretty certain would end in utter disaster. “It may be your last chance for a while.”
Three hours later, Lars shouted “Cut!”
Sometimes Sloan hated being right.
He dragged off the headphones and shoved away from the camera. “Fuck it, Sloan, you’re killing me!”
“Don’t I wish.” She gave him a thin slice of a smile. He jammed big square hands into his hair until it stood up in tortured gray tufts.
“Listen to me, Sloan.” He released his hair and pressed his palms together in front of his nose, as if praying. “This is very important.”
“I’m all ears,” Sloan said. As was everybody else. Privacy was hard to come by when you crammed twelve people into a shoot the size of a walk-in closet. They were filming in a damn mineshaft, for heaven’s sake, and two-thirds of the space was taken up by a freaky stone altar of ancient and unknown origins. Even if she wanted to have this conversation privately—and God, did she ever—there was no place to go.
And then, of course, there was the Jesus factor. When Lars talked, people listened. Breathlessly.
“You,” he said, “are an ugly old crone.”
“Oh, Lars. You say the sweetest things.”
He ignored that. “Mr. Handsome over there—“ he jabbed a thumb at Justin “—is the strapping young man who thinks you’re nothing but a kooky old lady.”
“Yes, I believe I read something about that in the script.” Sloan didn’t smile. “My agent helped me with the bigger words but I got the gist of it.”
Lars ignored that, too. “But he’s wrong about you. Dead wrong. Your magic is real, and your body—your body, Sloan—is the channel. It’s the portal, okay? It’s the gateway through which all that dark magic flows.”
“I know that, Lars.” And she did. Her body was the reason she’d landed this job. It was the reason she landed any job.
“No. You know what? No.” He rubbed both hands through the air between them, as if erasing an invisible blackboard. “It’s not dark magic. It’s earth magic.” A feral smile split his square, ruddy face, and those blue eyes glowed like fire. He eased toward her, oddly graceful for such a bulky man. His hands danced in the air like he was weaving a spell that would call forth the woman he was seeing inside his head.
Oh, right. This is why I fell in love with him.
The man was blunt, rude, stocky and plain. And he didn’t think much of Sloan when he bothered to think about her at all. But when he started talking story? When he cracked open the treasure trove of his imagination and started painting word pictures? God. She was so cooked.
“Earth magic,” he murmured again. Almost crooned it, really, his voice a rough, low drag across her nerves. “Natural magic. It’s fecund. Sexual. Miraculous. It’s the first green shoots after a brutal, deadly winter. It’s the ancients making love in their fields under an equinox moon, in the hopes that fertility will beget fertility. It’s neither good nor bad. It just—“ He clenched those hands into big fists and Sloan suffered a punishing spasm of lust. “—is. It’s life and what it costs. Blood and violence, effort and sweat. Our ancestors knew that price and paid up, fair and square. But not us. No, we’ve cut down, burned up and beaten back our wild places until we don’t know what wild even is anymore. And we think we’ve won but we haven’t.”
He narrowed the space between them further yet, until she could feel the buzz of his energy on her own skin. “Because it’s inside us, Sloan. Nature isn’t out there, it’s in here.” He thumped his barrel chest. “It’s in here.” He tapped a finger lightly against her breastbone and there was that spasm of lust again. God. “It’s this insatiable drive—to eat, to fuck, to survive—buried down deep, right next to our infinite capacity for violence. Life and death, light and dark, hand in hand. That’s the source of your power. That’s what you call forth with your blood and your body and your soul. You’re the conduit for want itself, and young Justin here is powerless before it. Before you.” His voice dropped to a nearly subsonic growl that Sloan felt in her thighs, at the tips of her breasts. “I want that kid on his knees, Sloan. And I want you to put him there.”
She blinked once, twice, found her mouth open and dry. She jerked herself back to the moment and tossed an automatic smolder Justin’s way.
“My specialty,” she cooed. Justin didn’t even notice. He was too busy worshipping at the Shrine of Lars. She had to sympathize.
“Fuck it, that’s the problem!”
Sloan jumped at the sudden roar, and the vehemence behind it.
“I don’t want your goddamn specialty.” He turned his back on her, speared both hands into his wild hair again, and gripped his scalp hard. “Fuck your little winks and tricks and wiggles.” He stalked to the far wall, spun back and glared. “I don’t want you to seduce him, for Christ’s sake. I want you to compel him.”
Her chest ached, and—oh shit, shit, shit—tears threatened. Failure was a bitch, and Lars wasn’t helping it go down any easier. “I’m trying!”
“No, you’re not! You’re…you’re…” He paddled the air with those big hands. “You’re vamping!”
She felt her mouth drop open. “Vamping?”
“Yes!” He narrowed those eyes and shot a finger her way. “I need power and you’re serving up fluff. I need sex and you’re giving me a strip tease. I ordered the three-inch thick porterhouse and you’re delivering a goddamn chicken nugget! Now what the hell is the problem?”
“You.” The word was out before she could stop it and horror jacked up her throat. But she didn’t take it back. He was her problem, one she couldn’t work through or around, and it looked like she was finally going to tackle it. A perverse relief threaded through her horror. It would suck, but maybe afterwards she’d be free. “You’re the problem, Lars.”
He shut his mouth, for once stunned into silence. The entire set went still and breathless, and Lars just stared at her. Sloan’s heart beat in her ears, in her palms, and a great gob of nervous laughter wedged itself in her throat.
Then he was in motion. It took only two of those impatient strides to cross the mineshaft, and the urge to flee replaced the laughter. But where would she go? Where could she hide from this? From this man and all that he made her feel? From the piercing shame of doing her best for her beloved and coming up so laughably short?
Nowhere. There was nowhere far enough, nowhere safe enough. So she stood her ground, shored up her smile and let him crowd her. He wasn’t an overly tall man, for all that outsized presence of his. He barely had to bend to put his nose about four inches from hers. She managed not to draw back, not to retreat even an inch, though it took a supreme act of will. She simply let one brow rise, slowly, arrogantly. And if he thought she wasn’t a good actress, he could go fuck himself because this was the performance of her life.
“Clear the set,” Lars growled.
Nobody moved. Nobody breathed.
“Clear it!” he roared.
They cleared it.
Sloan let her smile slide toward mocking as she eyed the crew pelting for the door. “Darling,” she murmured. “People will talk.”
“Don’t do that.” He didn’t back away, and Sloan didn’t breathe. “Don’t pull that shit on me. I’m too old.”
“You’re fifty, Lars.” Now the mockery was directed at herself. “Just like me.”
“Exactly. Which means you’re too old for that shit, too. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Sloan.”
“That I’m old?” She flicked back a curl with one delicate fingernail. “Lovely. Thank you.”
He ignored that and searched her face. Seriously searched it, like he was looking for something and didn’t know if he’d find it. “You know,” he mused, “ten years ago—hell, maybe even five—you could’ve turned in this performance and everybody would have applauded.” That curl drooped wetly onto her cheek again, and he poked it back himself with one impatient finger. The shock of his touch detonated in her palms and soles, then raced inward, and Sloan dredged up a desperate laugh.
“Well, maybe not applauded…” She dropped her eyes with mock modesty.
Lars only shook his head. “They wouldn’t even have noticed anything wrong. You were too beautiful, like the sun or something. People went blind just from looking at you.”
Sloan fought a burst of juvenile pleasure. He thought she was as beautiful as the sun! Or, wait, used to. She narrowed her eyes. “Were?”
“Were.” He lifted one of those blocky hands again and she braced herself for the punch of adrenaline and desire his touch seemed to wring from her. With incongruous delicacy, he laid a single fingertip to the corner of her eye, and her lids fluttered shut completely without her permission. It trailed across her temple, that fingertip, then traced the parenthesis beside her mouth. “Not so perfect anymore, Sloan.”
“No.” It was both an admission and a liberation. She’d given up perfection when she’d chosen her daughter over her ice-cold grief. Real emotion took its toll on a woman’s face. “I’m not.”
“And thank God for that,” he said promptly. “I’ve been waiting thirty years for all that perfection to get out of the way.”
“You have?” She blinked. “Why?”
“Because I couldn’t see past it. I couldn’t see inside it.”
She frowned. “Why would you want to?”
“Two reasons. One, I’m a man. And men—real men—when presented with a box wrapped in total smoking hotness, want to open the damn thing.”
Untrue. She hadn’t been unwrapped since Archer. Nobody else had so much as picked at the tape. Not until now, anyway. Not until Lars.
She forced herself to lift a cool brow. “And two?”
“Two, I have a movie to make. A fantastic movie. The movie of our generation, maybe. The one I’ve been waiting my whole career—and most of yours—to make. One that requires everything—and I mean everything—in your damn box.”
A jolt of terror flooded her, but not surprise. Lars didn’t do halvsies. Never had, and she knew it. She suspected she’d taken this role for that very reason. Lars would force her to do what she was too cowardly to do alone—turn in a genuine performance. Which meant taking a brutal inventory of her heart—what was left of it, anyway—and using the whole thing.
Which now seemed like a remarkably bad idea.
“No,” she managed. She knew she should pony up some excuse, something plausible and slick, but panic kicked like a mule in her chest and she was down to syllables. “No. I can’t.”
“Bullshit. You won’t.”
“I won’t, then.” She sucked at the thin air—cold, stingy, useless—and pressed a fist to her banging heart.
“Because of me?”
She didn’t bother to deny it.
“Why?” He shoved his hands into his pockets and glowered fiercely. “I know I’m not gentle or kind or anything but I’m not cruel and I’m not stupid. I’d take care of you, Sloan. I’d…take care.”
“Oh, Lars.” Her throat tried to close on a wave of pure, aching love and she sank down onto the altar behind her. It was warm and inviting under her, comforting. “It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?”
“You want all of me,” she said helplessly.
“Yes. God, yes.” He plunked down on the altar beside her, took her cold hands in his two hard, warm ones. “Every last shred.”
“And I want to give it to you.” Tears threatened and Sloan willed them back. “I do. But—“
“But you want me for your movie.” She shrugged miserably. “And I just want you.”
“You want—“ His voice cut out with an abruptness that would’ve been comic in less pathetic circumstances.
“—you.” She tried for a smile. He simply stared so she let it go. “I want you.” She swallowed with a dry click and soldiered on. “I’m sorry, Lars. God, I am. I didn’t mean for this to happen. I thought I could do this, you know? I’ve been playing sexy for thirty years, and I’m damn good at it. But you asked me for more than sexy. You asked me for truth, for power and courage. You asked me for true sexuality, complex and earthy and needful. You asked me to draw it all with my body and on my face. You asked me for something I thought I buried with Archer. Something I did bury with Archer.”
She sighed wearily. “But then you went and told me a damn story. You went and wove your magic tale and you waved your magic hands and I just…fell.” The corner of her mouth tipped up wryly. “What can I say? I’m a story whore. You had me at once upon a time.”
“Once upon a time.” His face was still blank with shock.
She shrugged her assent. “And now I can’t separate your story from my truth.”
“A good story is truth,” he said. “Just not your particular truth.” Knee jerk, she thought fondly, but he was coming around. Her confession had thrown him, sure, but nothing could knock Lars off script when it came to storytelling. Not for long.
“Well, it’s my truth this time.” She drew her hands from his slack ones and patted his knee. “That’s what’s in my box, Lars. And that’s why I’m having a tough time getting emotionally naked enough for you. That’s why I’m quitting. You need a pro on this, and I’m not—“
“Do you remember that first picture we did?” he asked abruptly. “You, me and Archer? Must’ve been, God, thirty years ago?”
“Of course I do.” She frowned at him. “Archer and I met on that movie.”
“So did you and I.” He gave her a crooked smile. “I watched you and Archer fall in love on that film.”
“You and the whole world.” She smiled back, and hers was crooked as well. But there was no pain in the memory. Only warmth and gratitude.
“Your work on that shoot was astonishing,” Lars told her gruffly. “True and vulnerable and completely unprotected. You slapped your soul on the screen, Sloan. Everything in your box, and then some. Archer fell like a stone.” He took her hands again. “So did I.”
Sloan’s mouth dropped open. In her mind’s eye, her lungs shriveled up like raisins. “You fell—” She stared helplessly, beyond words.
“—in love,” Lars finished. “With you. Yep. But Archer was luckier, better looking and quicker on the draw, plus any idiot could see you were crazy about him. Then there was the fact that I loved my wife. Still do, God rest her.”
“You adored Emmy,” Sloan managed. “Everybody knew that. You’ve never looked sideways at another woman, not even since she’s been gone.” She squeezed his hands. “And I’m so sorry she is.”
“Thanks.” He smiled briefly. “I miss her. But it’s not exactly true that I never looked. I definitely looked. I’m a man, like any other.” He shrugged. “I just never touched.”
“That makes you unlike quite a lot of them.”
“Maybe so. All I know is that love—real love—is a rare and precious thing. But it’s not easy and it’s never simple. I felt what I felt, for her and for you. I just put what I’d promised Emmy on the front burner, and what I felt for you on the back. It was easier after Archer died.” His eyes came back to hers, and there was understanding in them. He knew her grief. Maybe he was the only one who did. “Because when he died, that light inside you, that incandescent courage, it went out. Went out forever, I thought, and God, I mourned. I mourned Archer—I loved him, too—but God help me, I mourned you more. Because him, we buried. You, we buried alive.”
“I wasn’t buried,” she murmured. “I was frozen.”
“That’ll work, too. But it wasn’t as complete or as permanent as I originally thought. Because every now and then, I’d see something. I don’t know what, just something.” He pinned her with those eyes—bright, hot, demanding—and canted himself toward her. Leaned in until she felt the heat of his words on her own lips. “And the older you got—the older we both got—the more often I’d see it. At first I thought it was just age. Your dazzle fading enough for people to look straight at you for the first time in thirty years. Who the hell knows? But then I thought maybe, you know?” He gripped her hands hard, a little too hard, but Sloan didn’t mind. Because, God almighty, they were trembling. His hands were trembling. “I thought, Jesus, maybe she’s coming back to life. Maybe it’s finally time to make my fucking movie.”
“This movie.” He slipped from the altar, put himself on his knees before her. Sloan’s heart thundered, and now her hands shook, too. “And this movie needs you.” His voice was a long stretch of gravel road that she wanted to drive forever. “It needs your body, yeah, and that face of yours. Not because they’re beautiful but because of the way your heart and your truth shine through them.” He rested their joined hands on her knees and gazed up at her. “But more than that, I need them. I need you, Sloan. I’ve loved you for thirty years, I’ve mourned you for twenty, and for the past five, I’ve hoped for you. And now, tonight, I need you.” He shook his head helplessly and she thought he’s doing it right now. He’s telling me a story. Our story. Wonder and gratitude blew through her, scattered her words like leaves.
“I need you, Sloan. Not as a director, not for my movie, but just because I love you. I love your courage and your strength and your smart, sexy mouth. I love your crow’s feet and your wrinkles and the way you don’t take my shit. I love all of you, and I want you to give it to me.”
Good old Lars. So direct. But joy blossomed inside her like a rare and precious flower.
“Now and forever, Sloan. None of this ‘let’s fuck and see how it goes’ business. We’re too old for that shit. If we’re going to do this, I want to do it right. You’ll have to marry me.”
A delighted laugh gurgled out of her. “So romantic, Lars!”
“That’s me. Mr. Romance.” He grimaced. “You want to answer the question, Sloan? My knees are killing me.”
“For heaven’s sake, then, get up.” She watched him shove to his feet, then she slithered to hers like the sexpot she used to be. He frowned down at her, but Sloan could see past the bluster now. Could see all the way to the uncertainty and the hope.
He said, “Well?”
She stepped forward and pressed herself into his body with a languid deliberation that wrung an appreciative hiss from him. His hands—those big, warm magic-makers—slid tentatively around her hips and she suppressed her own hiss of pleasure. She wound her arms around neck, put the bow of her mouth right next to his ear and murmured, “Yes.”
Then his mouth was on hers, taking and giving and promising with all the straightforward energy she adored. And she was giving and taking and answering with all the wonder and love and hope in her heart.
Happily ever after, she thought as the story unfolded petal by dazzling petal between them. Forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Want to see Sloan in action & meet her daughter Nixie?
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