The River City Chronicles by J. Scott Coatsworth - Part Eleven

Sacramento author J. Scott Coatsworth has written and published a number of short stories, novellas and full-length novels, but “The River City Chronicles” holds a special place in his little writer heart.

In many ways, it is a love letter to Sacramento, one that we wanted to share with Outword’s readers. To do that we have uploaded the next installment of chapters of the book here, for you to read online.

Previously in the River City: Dave stumbled across his deceased partner’s things, and fell into a disabling depression. Marcos helped him through it.

Sam and Brad cleared out a space for Ricky - Sam's old writing den.

Carmelina found out from the PI that Marissa is her daughter. She met Marcos for coffee and told him her news. At Ragazzi, she worried about how Marissa would react while the class made gnocchi. After class, she finally broke the news to Marissa, and the girl promptly fled the scene.

Marcos found her at the Tattoo shop where she often stayed when she was homeless, and reassured her that she would still live with him.

Ricky started to recover from the beating he took at the hands of one of his tricks.

Diego and Gio attended Luna's funeral, and Diego was finally able to break through the boy's shell.

Will Ben find a way to save Ella? Will Matteo take Diego back after all the secrets and lies? And when will Max finally wake up?

Find out next.


Major Characters:

•   Ben Hammond: 35 – Trans author and barista working on his first novel

•   Brad Weston: 30 – Runs the LGBT Center, former chief of staff for GOP senator, partner to Sam

•   Carmelina di Rosa: 55 – Semi-retired, redhead, lost her husband Arthur three months ago

•   Dave Ramos: 47 – Human resources consultant and Carmelina di Rosa’s tenant

•   Diego Bellei: 47 – The chef at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Matteo Bianco.

•   Marcos Ramirez: 39 – Web designer and gay playboy who works with the LGBT center

•   Marissa Sutton: 17 – Bisexual homeless teenager who turns up at Ragazzi for the cooking class

•   Matteo Bianco: 47 – Co-owner and host at Ragazzi restaurant, married to Diego Bellei.

•   Sam Fuller: 23 – Suspense novel writer, working on second novel, partner to Brad Weston

Minor Repeating Characters:

•   Andrea Smith: deceased - Carmelina’s daughter

•   Arthur di Rosa: deceased – Carmelina’s husband

•   Dana Pearce: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   Daniele Amoroso: 40 – Italian suitor interested in Carmelina

•   Darryl Smith: Andrea’s adoptive father

•   Ella Jackson-Cucinelli: 32 – Caucasian woman recently transferred to Sacramento from Chicago

•   Emily Stamp: P.I. hired by Carmelina

•   Giovanni "Gio" Mazzocco: Diego’s son

•   Jason Clark: One of Marissa’s friends at McClatchy High

•   Jessica Sutton: Marissa’s adoptive mother

•   Loylene Davies: friend of Carmelina’s

•   Luna Mazzocco: Diego’s Ex and Gio’s mother

•   Max Cucinelli: Matteo and Diego’s immigration lawyer

•   “Moms” Cucinelli: Mother to Max and Ella, trans woman

•   Rex Ward: Owner of the Twink tattoo shop

•   Ricky Martinez: One of the homeless kids from the LGBT center

•   Tristan Dayton: Marissa’s boyfriend

•   Valentina Bellei: Diego’s sister who lives in Italy


91 - Karma

Ben sat in the waiting room at U.C. Davis, staring nervously at the time on his phone. Dr. Randall had agreed to see him, though she’d already told him there was nothing she could do for him when they’d talked on the phone. He’d sent off his novel the day before. Now he had something more important to do.

She was late. It was ten-thirty a.m., and his appointment was for ten. He hoped the fact that she was running late didn’t mean anything.

The hospital was busy today, humming with patients and personnel.

He hadn’t told Ella he was coming here. Why get her hopes up, if it might all end up being for naught?

“Mr. Hammond?”

He looked up to see a blonde nurse in a purple smock smiling at him from the doorway. “That’s me.”

“Want to come with me? Dr. Randall is ready to see you.” She gave him a friendly smile.

“Thanks.” He picked up his backpack and followed her.

The last time he’d been to this hospital had been for his bottom surgery, and it still made him a little uncomfortable to think about it. Not because he regretted it—not at all. But it had been a long, painful recovery.

“I’m Jacqueline. Having a good day today?”

He nodded. “I guess? Hospitals make me nervous.”

“You’re not alone.” She opened another door for him. “Here you go.” She squeezed his shoulder and whispered, “Good luck.”

He turned to face Dr. Randall. She was seated behind her desk, working on something on her computer. She had short silver hair and blue eyes, and he guessed she was in her mid-fifties.

“Please have a seat, Mr. Hammond. I’ll be with you in just a moment.”

He did as he was told, looking around the office. It was neat, with shelves of leather-bound medical journals against the back wall and color-coded patient files stacked on her desk. “Not paperless yet?”

“Not entirely.” She tapped out a few more keystrokes and then turned to face him. “So what can I do for you today?”

“I’m here on behalf of a friend. Well, more than a friend.” He unzipped his backpack and pulled out a photo and his checkbook. “That’s Ella.” He handed the photo over to her.

She took it and glanced at it, giving him a cursory smile. “She’s very pretty.”

“Thanks. She told me about a clinical trial for Fahr’s Disease that you’re running. I was hoping…”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hammond. I have to stop you right there. The trial is full, and I doubt she would meet all the criteria for the study anyhow. I know it’s hard to hear, but these trials are not for the benefit of a single patient. They’re run to help us understand the disease and possible treatments for the entire Fahr’s population.”

“I can pay. I’ve got about ten thousand dollars in my savings account, and I could set up a payment plan out of my paycheck. I work at Zocalo—”

“I’m truly sorry, Mr. Hammond. That’s not how it works. At least, not with any reputable research institution. We don’t fill our studies with patients who can pay the most—”

“She’s going to die.”

“As I said, I am sorry—”

“For the first thirty years of my life, Dr. Randall, I lived in this society in the wrong body. I fought my parents, my friends, the whole fucking world to get myself to a place where I finally felt like me. Do you have any idea how that feels?”

She sat back and stared at him.

I went too far. He was shaking now, feeling exposed. “I’m so sorry to have wasted your time.” Ben put the photo and the checkbook away and stood to go.

“Yes, I do.”

“What?”

“You asked me if I knew what it felt like. I do. My daughter Lyra is trans.”

“Oh.” He sank back down into the chair.

“I still don’t see what that has to do with the clinical trial.”

He took a deep breath, and decided to forge ahead. “After I came out, I didn’t think I would ever find someone to love me. To see me, scars and all, and still want to be with me.” He looked away. It was hard to talk about this, especially with a stranger. “A lot of trans people go through this. I know. I’m not exceptional. But with Ella, I finally found someone who sees me. Who likes me for me. You don’t know how rare that is. For anyone, but especially for someone like me.” He put his hand over hers.

It was like an electric shock, and he could have sworn there were green sparkles in the air between them. He shook his head. I must be more tired than I thought.

Her expression softened. She put her hands together in front of her face, sighing. “Like I said, it’s highly unlikely that she matches what we’re looking for in the study. Even if we did have room. Which we don’t. Someone else would have to drop out.”

“I know.”

Dr. Randall stared at him for a moment longer and then opened her desk and pulled out a business card. She handed it over to him. “Have her contact me and send me her medical records. I’ll take a look, and if she seems like she might be a good candidate, we can have her come in and see if she fits the bill. Even then, I can’t promise anything.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

She bit her lip. “I want to believe that Lyra can find someone to love. Like you did. Since she came out as trans… it hasn’t been easy. For either of us.”

“Maybe there’s something to the whole karma thing.”

She smiled, but there was a bit of sadness around her eyes. “I don’t really believe in the karma. But I hope you’re right.”

“Me too.” He shook her hand. “Thank you so much, Dr. Randall.”

“Call me Susan.”

“Thank you, Susan. I’ll have her contact you.”

He wanted to dance, but he restrained himself, leaving her office with some of his dignity intact. Once he got around the corner though, he did a little jig.

His phone buzzed. It was Ella.

Max is awake.

 

 

92 - Cazzo

Diego scanned the crowd gathered just past the airport tram exit, hoping to see Matteo waiting for him there, as he’d promised in his text when they landed. It had been a long flight, and it was after midnight in his new adopted hometown.

They’d already gone through customs at SFO. Thankfully the customs agents hadn’t questioned Gio’s travel visa. They’d need to get that whole thing figured out, and soon. He only had a six-month visa. That could wait for later though. Right now, Diego was exhausted.

Gio followed him, looking far more awake and enthusiastic than Diego felt. “Everything’s so new.” This was Diego’s son’s first trip to America, and that seemed to have overcome at least some of the boy’s doubts at his new living situation. At least for the moment.

“Not everything. But their old is our new.” He was glad to see Gio being more responsive.

“Ciao, bello,” Matteo said, emerging from the crowd to give him a hug.

They kissed, and Diego squeezed Matteo hard. “It’s good to be home,” he said in Italian. “This is Giovanni.”

Matteo reached out to shake his hand.

Gio turned away.

“Gio! Sorry about that. He’s had a long night and a long week.”

Matteo sighed. “Of course. Well, should we get your luggage and then take you two home?”

“I think that would be best.” Diego was keyed up by the time change but also exhausted.

They reached the long escalator that led down to baggage claim.

Gio looked up. “Che cazzo?”

“Language, Gio.…” At least none of the passersby knew that cazzo was the Italian equivalent of fuck. Diego couldn’t help but laugh though. The sculpture of a big red rabbit hanging in the air over the escalators had caught the boy’s attention. In fairness, it was impressive—at least fifteen meters long and three or four high. “He’s called Leap, but most people just call him the big red rabbit.”

Gio nodded, not taking his eyes off it. “Cool.”

“You speak English?” Matteo asked as they descended to the ground floor. He was trying to connect with the boy. Diego appreciated that.

“Yes.”

“Studied English since was a kid,” Diego said in English. “He speaks better the language than me.”

“See?” Matteo raised his eyebrow. “I told you that you needed to learn.”

Diego kissed his cheek. “You are always right, my bello.”

Gio snorted.

Diego was going to have to teach the boy some manners.

They waited for the luggage for fifteen minutes, but at last Diego’s big white bag and Gio’s even bigger orange one swung into view.

“That’s quite a suitcase you have there, Gio,” Matteo said, eyeing the giant piece of luggage.

“It’s just my things.” He squirmed uncomfortably under Matteo’s stare.

“There’s more coming too. I shipped the rest of it.” Diego pulled his own suitcase off the carousel. “It will be here in circa three weeks.”

“Good. We can find a place for all of it then. Come on, you two. Let’s go home.”

* * *

They got Gio settled in the guest room. He settled himself. He fell onto the bed and was asleep in seconds.

Diego put his suitcase inside the room, turned off the light, and closed the door, laughing softly. “I remember when it was so easy to go to sleep,” he said in Italian, hoping Matteo wouldn’t call him on speaking la bella lingua now that he was back home.

“Ah, to be young again.” Matteo led Diego back to their own bedroom and closed the door. “Are you awake enough to talk?”

Diego nodded. “I got some sleep on the plane, and it’s ten in the morning for me.” He’d just gotten used to the time zone change when he’d had to turn around and come home. They sat down on the bed together.

“How’s your mother and sister?”

“Valentina is good. The kids keep her busy. My mother… she’s forgetting more and more.”

Matteo frowned. “Do you… would you rather be back home, in Italy?”

Diego shook his head. “I’m home, here.” He sighed. “It just means I’ll have to make more frequent trips to see her.”

Matteo smiled faintly.

“What?”

“You just said this was home. I don’t think you’ve ever told me that before.”

Diego nodded. “I guess so. Home is with you.” He looked up into Matteo’s eyes. “So… how are we?”

“You mean now that I know you slept with Luna while we were together?”

Diego blushed. “Yes. That.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was drunk. It was when your father died. I… I don’t even remember it happening.”

Matteo looked away. “So you really didn’t know. Or remember.”

“No.”

The silence stretched between them for a minute, then two.

Diego wished he could see what was going on in Matteo’s head. Was he angry? Did he want Diego to leave? Did he even care?

At last, Diego couldn’t stand it anymore. “Are we okay?” He tried not to sound desperate.

Matteo stared at him. “No,” he said at last.

“Oh.” Diego felt a little nauseous. “Okay. Sure. I can look for somewhere else to stay tomorrow. Is it okay that Gio and I stay here tonight? I can sleep on the couch. I don’t think I could wake him up, in any case—”

Matteo put a finger over Diego’s mouth, silencing him. “Are there any more secrets?”

Diego shook his head. “No,” he whispered.

Matteo nodded. “I said we’re not okay. Not yet. But I don’t want you to leave.”

“What then?” Diego clamped down on the little ember of hope that burned in his heart.

“We start again. No more lies. No more secrets.”

The hope flared into a bright flame. Diego nodded. “I can do that.”

“Can I have your ring?” Matteo asked suddenly.

“Why?” Was this a punishment?

“Please.” He held out his hand.

Diego pulled it off his finger. It was the wedding ring Matteo had slipped on his finger on that amazing day, the wedding day that had been reduced to a lie by circumstance. By his own actions. He handed it over to Matteo.

Matteo took it and slipped off the bed, going down on one knee.

Oh shit.

“Diego Bellei, will you marry me again?” He held up the ring. It sparkled, throwing off little sparks that flashed in the air. “Start things fresh between us?”

It was a sign. “Yes, che cazzo, yes!”

“Language, mio amore—”

Diego laughed. He stood and pulled Matteo up to his feet, hugging him fiercely.

As nighttime edged into morning, they celebrated his return and their new engagement properly.

 

 

93 - Making It Right

Ben was breathless by the time he reached Max’s room. He knocked on the door, hoping Moms was away.

“Come in.”

It was Ella. Relieved, he pushed open the door.

Max was sitting up in bed. He looked pale, but there was life in his eyes again. Ella’s eyes were puffy, and her cheeks were wet.

"Hi Max,” Ben said, holding out a hand. “I’m Ben.”

Max shook it weakly. “Nice to meet you. You’re Ella’s new boyfriend? She spoke highly of you.”

His raised eyebrow made Ben wonder if he disapproved. “Yes. And I know all about her condition.” He pulled over a chair and sat next to Ella. “Hey, you okay?” He gave her a kiss.

She nodded. “I didn’t think this was ever going to happen.” She managed a tiny smile. “Ish good.”

Ben ignored the slur in her speech. “Where’s your Moms?”

“She went to get some coffee for me.” Ella kissed his cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Speak of the devil.” Lexi, Ella’s “Moms,” came into the room bearing a coffee for her daughter and a water for Max.

Ben grimaced. “Look, I know you don’t like me—”

“Shhhh.” Lexi shushed him with a manicured finger on his lips. “It doesn’t matter whether I like you or not. Ella made up her mind, and she’s made it clear to me that it doesn’t matter what I think.” She swept her scarf up behind her back and took a seat across the bed from the two of them. “Besides, I never said I didn’t like you.” She winked. “I actually think you’re quite the nice young man.”

Ben blushed. “Well… thanks, I guess.”

“Now that Moms is back, I have something to tell you both,” Max said, and he looked, if possible, even paler than before.

Lexi was on her feet in an instant, her hand on his forehead. “You feeling okay? I can call Dr. Matthews—”

“No, Moms, it’s nothing like that.” He squeezed her hand. “Please, have a seat.”

Frowning, she sat back down, throwing Ella a stare that said, “Do you know anything about this?”

Ella shook her head.

“I did something… bad before the accident.”

“How bad?” Ella’s brow creased, and she squeezed Ben’s hand so hard he thought her nails might draw blood.

“I was so scared for you, Sis. I heard about that clinical trial at UC Davis. I thought I could buy my way in. Maybe make an endowment or something.”

“You don’t have that kind of money. I know. I’ve been paying your bills.” Ella’s nails dug in a little harder.

Ouch. Ben tried gamely to ignore the pain.

“I know. I blackmailed someone.”

“Holy shit, Max. What the hell were you thinking?”

“Hey, be careful! Coma patient here, remember?” Max rubbed his cheek.

“Who were you blackmailing?” She still looked angry.

He shook his head. “You don’t know them. This Italian couple with a restaurant out in East Sac, whom I helped with their immigration—”

Oh shit. “Matteo and Diego?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“They’re… friends of mine. Diego just came home from Italy. His ex-wife died, and he brought home a son he didn’t know he had.” Sam had filled him in on the whole thing. Poor guy, dealing with all that and a blackmail threat from Ella’s idiot brother.

Max hung his head. “I’m sorry. It was wrong. I know that now.”

“You know that now?” Ella pulled his chin up to look in his eyes. “Do you know what damage you could have done?”

Max held her gaze for a moment, then looked away.

“You have to apologize.” It was Moms who spoke this time. “You did it for the right reason. I know you love Ella. But you really screwed up this time.”

Max nodded. “I know. When I’m feeling better—”

“You think it’s okay to let this go on even another minute? To let that poor man wonder if you’re going to wake up and bring his whole life crashing down?” She said it softly, but it was as sharp as a knife.

“No, ma’am.” Max suddenly looked five years old, staring down at his crossed fingers and twiddling his thumbs.

Lexi looked at him. “Can you reach your friends?”

Ben looked at the time on his phone. “They’re probably at work. But I can FaceTime them.”

“Please.”

He nodded. He called Diego first. There was no response. He was probably cooking for dinner. Ben tried Matteo next.

“Hi, Ben.” The man flashed his beautiful Italian smile.

“Hey, Matteo. Do you and Diego have a moment?”

“Sorry. The place is a little busy.”

“Damn, that’s good to hear. But seriously. This will only take a minute, and it’s really important.”

“Okay. One moment.” The view shifted.

Ben waited.

“Okay. We’re ready.”

Diego’s hands were covered in flour. “Ciao, Ben!”

“Hey! You know the girl I’ve been seeing? Ella? It turns out her brother is someone you know, and he’s just woken up from a coma.” Without additional preamble, he turned the phone to face Max.

On the screen, Diego stiffened. “Cazzo.”

Max nodded. “I deserve that.” He took a deep breath. I wanted to tell you how sorry I am about what I did to you. Ella is… I had my reasons. But none of them justified blackmailing you. It’s over. I’m so sorry.”

Moms nodded, squeezing his hand.

Ben shivered. It felt like the room had just suddenly gone cold or that an electric shock had run through him. He turned the phone back to himself. “That’s it. I just thought you should know.” He expected to see scowls of disbelief or anger.

Instead, Diego was nodding, a curiously serene smile on his face. “Tell to him that I accept it.”

Matteo kissed Diego and then added, “We hope he gets well soon.”

The screen went black. “Well, that went well.”

There was a knock at the door. One of the nurses poked her head in. “I need to check on Mr. Cucinelli’s vitals.”

“Come on, you two. Let’s give her a little room.” Moms herded them out of the room into the waiting area.

“I’m so happy for you both,” Ben said, looking back at the closed door. “He’s awake and seems like himself.”

Ella nodded. “His old blockheaded self. I’m so sorry for what he did to your friends. I didn’t know.”

“I know.”

Moms gave them a quick hug. “I’ll leave you two to catch up. I want to talk to Dr. Matthews.”

“Thanks, Lexi.” He took Ella’s hand. Can we sit down for a sec?”

“I’m tired of sitting.”

“Please? It will make this easier.”

“You’re nosh breaking up with me, are you? ’Cause both Max and Moms will kill you.” She grinned, but the creases at her temples gave her away.

“Not at all. I had something I wanted to tell you, something good about that UC Davis trial…”

 

 

94 - Memories And Plans

Marissa picked at her meal. She’d agreed to come to dinner with Carmelina under protest, and she hadn’t said a word since they’d sat down with their salads. Marcos had dropped her off and was due back to pick her up in about half an hour.

Sellands was busy as usual, as people stopped by the popular H Street joint to pick up sandwiches and salads to take home.

Carmelina watched her, concerned that she’d gotten off on a bad foot with the girl. She decided she’d waited long enough. It was time.

She pulled out a bright-blue hat box from her purse and set it on the table.

“What’s that, an early birthday gift?” Marissa’s eyebrow arched, reminding Carmelina so much of herself that she almost laughed.

“Sort of.” She looked out the lime-green-framed window at the passing traffic, wondering where to begin. “When I was younger—about your age actually, more or less—I met a boy. His name was Billy Morgan. He was the cutest guy I’d ever seen, and then I found out he liked me.”

Marissa frowned. “Marcos said your husband’s name was Arthur.”

Carmelina nodded. “This was long before Arthur.” Her eyes misted over at the thought of her late husband. It was still so hard to believe he was gone. She sighed. “Anyway, Billy asked me out to a school dance, and I said yes. My mother didn’t want to let me go, but I begged. I was really good at begging.”

Marissa smiled. Just a little.

“Billy was a total gentleman. He picked me up in his Cougar and drove me to the school dance. We spent the whole evening together on the basketball court and in the bleachers. Then in the back of his car…”

“Seriously?” Marissa was all ears now.

Carmelina laughed ruefully. “We didn’t have Sex-Ed back then. I thought babies came from… well, I don’t remember what I thought. So yes. Seriously. And nine months later, your mother arrived.”

“What was she like?”

“You know I gave her up for adoption, right?”

Marissa nodded, and her eyes narrowed.

“I know, it’s hard to understand. But at that age… at your age, I wasn’t ready for a child. I don’t think I would have been a very good mother.” Carmelina sighed. “Your mother was a beautiful baby. And a lovely little girl. I spoke with the man who raised her… his name is Darryl Smith. He wants to meet you too, one of these days.” She pulled a manila envelope out of the box and handed it over to Marissa. “He gave me these.”

Her granddaughter opened the envelope and pulled out the photos, staring at them raptly, one after another. “She was beautiful,” she whispered.

“Yes, she was. She looked a lot like you. With longer hair.” She gave Marissa a few moments to go through the photos.

When she was done, Carmelina took her hand. “You can have those. I made copies.”

“Thank you.” There were tears at the corners of Marissa’s eyes. “I’ve never had pictures of her before.”

“You’re welcome. This is for you too.” She pushed the box across the table.

“What is it?”

“Open it and see.”

Marissa pulled off the lid and stared at all the things inside.

“I call it my box of hopes and dreams. When I gave away your mother for adoption, I wondered every single day if I had done the right thing. To make myself feel better, I started buying her things for each birthday, things I told myself I would give her if I ever saw her again.” Saying it out loud made her choke a little on the words.

Marissa pulled the objects out of the box one by one. The plastic unicorn. The baby rattle and the shoes, a golden pen, and many more.

“Do you know what happened to her?”

“Some kind of accident.” Marissa held up the magnifying glass questioningly.

“In case she wanted to be a scientist.”

“Ah.” She put it back in the box gently.

“Andrea had been out with friends that night. She came out of a bar in Midtown in the early hours of the morning and was hit by a passing motorist.”

Marissa closed her eyes, squeezing one of the photos. “Was she drunk?”

“I don’t know.” She wrung her hands under the table. “Marissa, I have to tell you something else.”

“What?” Marissa shut the box and set it aside.

“I know the man who killed your mother.”

Marissa just stared at her. “How?” she said at last.

Carmelina sighed. “By accident. I met him about a month ago at the grocery store. He asked me out. Neither of us knew—”

“Are you still seeing him? How did you find out?”

“When I was looking for you. I found some old newspaper clippings that mentioned his name.” She bit her lip. “And no. I broke it off with him two weeks ago after I learned what he had done.”

She set down the crumpled photo. “Was it an accident?”

“Yes. It was late, and he’d… probably had too much to drink with his friends.”

“Just like my mother.”

That surprised her. She nodded.

“I should hate him.” She picked up a picture of her mother again, smoothing it out between her fingers. “It’s terrible, but I barely remember her. This one Christmas, her kneeling beside the tree to give me a gift. It was a pair of socks, I think.”

That image broke Carmelina’s heart. “I’ll never see him again, I promise. It’s not fair to you.”

Marissa set down the photo again. “Do you like him? Is he a good man?”

“He’s… besides the accident, yes. I think so. He’s kind and sweet.” She thought of all the times in the last week she’d wanted to call him, to tell him what had happened, what she was thinking. “And yeah. I think I do.”

Marissa took her hand. Something passed between them that was deeper than words.

For a moment, Carmelina saw Andrea there. Her daughter stared at her, and then a smile crept up the edges of her mouth. Carmelina blinked, and it was Marissa again.

“You should call him. You should grab whatever chance you have to be happy.”

Carmelina sat back in her seat, stunned. How old was this girl to be so mature? “Are you sure?”

Marissa nodded. “I don’t want to meet him. Not yet. But one of these days. When I’ve had a chance to think it through.”

“Okay, then.” This was not what Carmelina had expected. Not at all. “The box is for you too. I want you to take it.”

“Thank you. You should keep this.” Marissa handed her the shoes. “I could see they meant a lot to you.”

“Yes, they do.” Perceptive too.

“So can I call you Grandma?”

Carmelina stiffened. God, am I that old already? “How about Nonna? It’s more Italian.”

“Thanks, Nonna.” Marissa got up and flung her arms around Carmelina.

“You’re welcome, cara mia.”

Fifteen minutes later, Marcos arrived to pick her up.

Carmelina sat there for a while after Marisa left, trying to decide what to do. At last, she decided to make a phone call.

“Hello?” Daniele sounded surprised to hear from her.

“Hi. Can I see you Friday night?”

 

 

95 - What He Wanted

Diego watched Gio walk away with Marissa and Tristan for his first day of school here in gli Stati Uniti. Marcos’s ward had agreed to show Diego’s son the ropes. With the boy’s good looks and Italian charm, not to mention the strict schooling he’d gotten in Italy, Diego didn’t think he would have any problems.

Matteo was meeting him at the lawyer’s office to discuss what happened next now that Luna had passed away.

It was a beautiful fall Sacramento morning, sunny and warm, and Diego was feeling truly hopeful for the first time in a long time. Max no longer had something to hold over his head. All of his secrets were out. The restaurant was doing well, actually bringing in a profit for a couple of weeks running, which Matteo said was a minor miracle.

And Matteo, for some crazy reason, still seemed to love him after all that had happened.

He started up the Fiat and headed downtown for their meeting, hoping he wouldn’t be too late. Gio had taken forever getting ready for school. The boy had more product than Diego and Matteo combined.

Diego crossed Broadway and slipped under the Highway 50 overpass. The freeway was clogged with cars taking their occupants to work.

Grazie a dio that I don’t have to do that every day. He rolled down his window and whistled a happy tune, and all the lights were green.

 

Across town, Matteo waited outside the lawyer’s office, checking his watch. Diego was running late, as usual. He grinned. It was nice to have things back to normal.

Matteo had stayed behind, prepping the restaurant for the lunch rush. The tavola calda concept had proven very popular, and word was spreading. Their suppliers had been shocked as he upped his daily orders and then upped them again, and the kids from the Center had proven adept at helping with food preparation. A few of them, Ricky and Marissa in particular, had a real talent for cooking.

Matteo turned his face up to the sun, drinking in the warmth. Somehow, un po’ per un po’, things were working themselves out. He whispered a little prayer of thanks to his mother and father.

“Sorry, am a little late.” Diego kissed him, grinning broadly at his surprise. “You ready?”

“I think so.” Even with their recent run of good luck, Matteo was ready for the other shoe to fall. Things were going a little too well, and their fortunes had never been this good. “Let’s go in.”

Dana was waiting for them, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt.

“Casual Thursday?” Matteo asked.

“Something like that.” She shook their hands. “Have a seat.”

“You have fifteen minutes for us?” Diego asked within a sly grin.

“This morning I have as much time as you want.” She smiled and sat back in her chair, putting her hands behind her head. “It’s a slow week. So what can I do for you gentlemen?”

“Diego just got back from Italy.”

She nodded. “How’d it go with the ex?”

“She died.” Diego handed over a folder.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” She opened the folder, looking over the death certificate. “Natural causes, if my limited Italian’s any good.”

Matteo nodded. “She had been sick for some time.”

She laid the folder on her desk. “Did you get to see her before?”

“Yes. She asked me to take her son… our son.” Diego looked over at Matteo, who nodded. “He is called Gio… Giovanni.”

“Wow. Did you know about him?”

Diego nodded. “I didn’t know he was so young. Seventeen.”

Dana nodded. “Is he still in Italy?”

Diego shook his head. “No, he’s here. He has a six-month visa.”

“Ah, a tourist visa. Okay, we can work on that. It may take some time, but we should be able to get him legal status as your dependent.” She frowned, turning to Matteo. “So how are you doing with all this?”

Matteo shrugged. “It happened a long time ago. There were… how do you say? Migrating circumstances?”

“Mitigating.”

“Yes.” He took Diego’s hand.

“Okay. So what do you guys want to do now? Are you separating?”

Matteo shook his head. “We want to get married. For real this time.”

Diego nodded.

Dana grinned, a spontaneous, genuine expression of joy. “I was hoping you two would work it out. We’ll have to file for a nullification of your earlier marriage. But with the death certificate and that, you’ll be free to marry. For real.”

Matteo squeezed Diego’s hand. “How long?”

“How long for…?

“How long until we can get remarried?”

“Hmmm… it might take a couple of months to get an appointment with a judge to consider the nullification.”

“Ah.” Matteo sighed heavily. He had hoped it could be sooner.

“Why? Is there a rush?” She smiled slyly. “Is this a shotgun wedding?”

“Shotgun?” Matteo looked confused.

“He’s not pregnant, is he?” She pointed to Diego.

“Ah, no.” I just want to get this behind us. We want to be married again. And we don’t want to worry about immigration any longer.…”

“Gotcha.” She turned to her laptop. “Let me see what I can do. I have a few family law judge friends. I’ll call around.”

Matteo nodded. “Thank you. That would be fantastic.”

“Where are you going to get married?”

“City Hall. We just want to get it done quickly.”

“Quick is good. Not every wedding can be a fairy tale, after all.” She got up. “Let me make a copy of this death certificate. I’ll be right back.”

She left them alone for a moment.

“Did you understand all of that?” Matteo asked Diego in Italian.

Diego nodded. “Mostly. We can get married?”

“In a few months. But she is going to try to nullify our old marriage sooner, if she can.”

“Thank you.” Diego looked away, wiping his eyes.

“For what? Dana is doing all the work.”

“For forgiving me.”

For his answer, Matteo pulled Diego into a hug. “I had to. I love you.”

“After everything?”

“Even after everything.” He let Diego go and grabbed his ear, pulling his face close. “Don’t you ever lie to me again.”

“Never.”

Things between them weren’t perfect, but they would work it all out. Somehow.

That’s what he wanted. And he almost always got his way.

The next day they got the call from Dana. They had a hearing for the following Monday.

 

 

96 - Two Dates At Formoli

You should grab whatever chance you have to be happy.

Marissa was much on her mind as Carmelina waited for Daniele at Formoli. She’d gotten there early, wanting to have a few moments to get settled. To think about what she was going to say to him.

Not that she’d been thinking about anything else these last few days. She’d been stunned by Marissa’s response, and up until that moment, she hadn’t let herself even think about the possibility of letting Daniele back into her life.

She looked down at her hands crossed in her lap. She’d had them freshly manicured and painted.

What would Arthur have thought about all of this?

“You could just ask me, you know.”

She looked up to see Arthur seated across from her, looking at the menu.

He whistled. “Eleven bucks for a plate of stuffed dates. They’d better be stuffed with diamonds.” He grinned at her.

She laughed. “You always were a bit of a cheapskate.”

“Yeah, but look at the great house I was able to buy for you. That came from a lifetime of ordering water at restaurants and only getting my hair cut twice a year.”

She chuckled. “I suppose. I thought you’d gone up to the great beyond.”

“It was a bit boring up there. I thought I’d check in on my old gal.”

“Old, huh?”

“But still as gorgeous as ever.” He picked up her hand and kissed it.

Carmelina looked around to see if anyone else had noticed her strange conversation with her husband’s ghost.

The restaurant was empty, not another person in sight.

“I thought it would be better to have this conversation with you one-on-one, my dear.” He took her hand. “You know the whole story now. The one you longed to find out, all those years.” He squeezed her hand.

“Yes. I never expected it to lead where it did.” Andrea was lost to her, but she had a new granddaughter in return.

“What fun would life be if it was just what we expected?” His eyes twinkled.

She nodded. “I suppose so.” She took a sip of her water, looking at him over his menu. “So why are you able to be here now?”

“Because you needed me. Sometimes we can pierce the veil. But only for a little while.”

She considered that. “What’s it like?”

“Heaven?”

He scratched his chin. “It’s like pizza and gelato. Oh, and water volleyball.”

“Come on.”

“I don’t know. It’s… it’s love. The people who went before us—our friends and family—there are a whole lot of them looking out for you and your friends, let me tell you. Nonna says hi.”

“Dammit.” Carmelina pulled a handkerchief from her purse and wiped the corners of her eyes. “You always could make me cry.”

“In a good way, I hope.”

“Usually.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

“Glad to hear it.”

“So.” She sighed. “Daniele.”

He sat back, arms crossed, and stared at her for a moment.

“What?”

“Just enjoying the view. Something to remember when I’m back among the pizza and gelato.”

She snorted. “Well?”

A lazy smile played across his features. “Life is short. You should grab whatever chance you have to be happy.”

* * *

Someone was shaking her shoulder.

“What?” She looked up. It was really bright. Her eyes adjusted, focusing on the man in front of her.

Daniele.

“Are you okay?”

She nodded. “I guess I was just tired. Did I fall asleep?”

Daniele nodded. He looked a little skittish. “Yeah. You kinda did.” He sat down opposite her, staring at her just like Arthur had.

The whole conversation had felt so real. “What?”

You called me?”

Oh, yeah. That. “Andrea had a daughter.”

“Oh.” He looked crestfallen. “If you called me here to yell at me again…” He started to get up to leave.

She put a hand on his arm. “No, it’s not that at all. Please. Sit.”

He looked doubtful but allowed her to guide him back down to his seat. “What’s this about, then?”

“I found her.” She pulled a photo of Marissa out of her wallet and handed it to him.

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she is.”

“Did you meet her?”

She nodded. “I actually already knew her. Her name is Marissa. She’s part of the cooking class I go to.”

He whistled. “Small world.”

Carmelina was once again reminded of Arthur. “It sure seems that way. I told her about you.”

Daniele tensed up. “I—”

“Hi there. I’m Lisa. Can I bring you some drinks to get started?” Their waitress flashed them a big smile.

Always with the bad timing. “This water’s fine for me.”

Daniele nodded. “Me too.”

“Okay. I’ll be right back to take your order.”

“Can you give us a few moments?” Carmelina shot her a pleading look.

“Of course. Just let me know when you’re ready.”

When she was gone, Daniele asked, “What did Marissa say? When you told her?”

“That she wanted me to be happy.”

That took a minute to sink in. “Wait… what? Did she… are you…?”

“Sometimes things that are broken can be put back together,” Carmelina said softly. She took his hands in hers across the table. “I’m saying I want to give it another go with you. If you’ll still have me.”

He jumped up and swung around the table to pull her into his arms, startling the other patrons. “If I’ll still have you? If I’ll still have you?” he spun her around like a ballerina, knocking her water off the table, and pulled her in for a kiss.

“So sorry,” she mumbled to the waitress as she sat down.

Lisa smiled. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not often I get to see such a beautiful display of love.”

Love? she mouthed at Daniele.

He shrugged. “I hope so. You tell me.”

The rest of the evening passed like a fairy tale, and in the end, she got her prince.

 

 

97 - Ragu And Regrets

Diego looked around at the class. It had grown to twenty-five people. Things were going so well, he was thinking about adding another course.

Their lunch business continued to grow. Matteo said they would turn a profit in October, enough of a good sign that they should be able to renegotiate their line of credit with the bank. And dinner business was picking up too.

Gio had fallen in with Marissa and her boyfriend, Tristan, at school. The boy actually seemed to be enjoying himself as he chopped carrots with the others for the Ragu alla Romagnola sauce they were preparing today.

“Ragu does great with any pasta,” Diego told his pupils. “And of course, ragu from Emilia Romagna does the best.” His mother had taught him how to make a wonderful Ragu. He just wished she could be there to see how he was passing it along.

Diego moved around the room, setting each person to doing a part of the preparation. Cooking was eighty percent prep and twenty percent applying heat.

He came around to Carmelina. “Ciao, bella!”

She and her companion were dutifully peeling tomatoes. “Diego, this is Daniele. Daniele, my friend, Diego the chef.”

Piacere.” Daniele held out his hand.

“Polite, and bello too.” Diego grinned at Carmelina as he shook Daniele’s hand.

“Matteo said you just got back from Italy?” She set another peeled tomato in her bowl.

“Yes. I brought my… figlio.”

“Son,” Daniele supplied. “You didn’t know?”

“No, I only recently found out. His mother never told me.” He wished he had gotten a little more time with Luna before she had passed away.

“But haven’t you and Matteo been together twenty years?” Carmelina asked, eyeing Gio. “The boy doesn’t look any older than seventeen.”

Diego closed his eyes. “Long story.”

She rubbed his arm. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“I’ll tell you one time. When things are less… folli.”

She nodded. “It’s a date.”

“I wanted to talk with you about a thing.” He waved for Matteo to come over. “He is better with English.”

Matteo joined them, taking a seat on one of the counter stools. “Are you ready to ask her?”

Diego nodded.

“We have a proposition for you. It was Diego’s idea. You were so wonderful here when he was gone, helping us run the place. How would you like to come work with us?”

Carmelina’s mouth dropped open. “Work with you… how?”

“Diego wants to train you as a chef. He thinks you could be really good at it, and with the business expanding—”

“I’d love to!” She jumped up and hugged Diego and then Matteo. “I had such a wonderful time cooking with you.”

Matteo gave her the slow-down gesture with both hands. “We can’t pay you a lot to start. But over time…”

“It sounds perfect.”

“You’d be fantastic at it.” Daniele kissed her cheek. “I’ve had your cooking.”

Matteo nodded. “So… we just heard that Marissa is your granddaughter?”

Carmelina nodded. “A little surprise of my own.” She winked at Diego.

Ha un dono per la cucina… She has… come si dice?”

“A gift.”

. A gift for cooking. We can train her too.”

“That would be amazing.”

“Then maybe Diego could take a day or two off now and then.”

Diego tried to imagine it, not having to be in the kitchen every day.

Carmelina grinned. “Maybe both of you could take a day off together.”

“That would be nice,” Matteo said in his usual droll manner.

“You could help for the wedding next weekend.” Diego pointed at Sam and Brad. “If you want.”

“I would love to.”

Just for a moment, Diego wished they could have a fancy wedding of their own. But getting married again was the most important thing. The rest was just decoration. Besides, he didn’t need a fancy wedding to know how madly in love he was with Matteo, even after twenty years.

“Can you start next Saturday?” Matteo asked. “We can see how we work together on the wedding prep.”

“That sounds wonderful. Do I need to bring anything?

“Just yourself and an apron.”

* * *

Carmelina was flying. In less than a week, she’d gotten herself a granddaughter, a boyfriend, and a new job. Though she felt a bit old to be throwing around the “boyfriend” word.

Male companion?

Significant other?

Maybe just “guy.”

She had a guy. It felt like a new lease on life, and Arthur approved.

After class, she sent Daniele on his way, promising to meet him for dinner later at Mayahuel. She had a hankering for their cream of poblano soup, but she had something more important to do first.

She’d gotten the woman’s name from Marcos, and now she was just hoping she was home.

She climbed up the steps to the front porch. The home was beautiful, a mid-century mansion along the American River in Fair Oaks. It had a huge grassy front yard, green in the midst of the drought, she noted. The place had clearly been updated and was well cared for.

After a moment’s hesitation, she pressed the buzzer.

She heard the sound of footsteps—heels?—inside.

The door opened. “Yes? Can I help you?”

Carmelina suddenly felt drab, underdressed, and old.

Jessica Sutton was dressed for a night out on the town even while she was at home on a Sunday afternoon. She wore a pearl necklace, a light blue top, and a matching skirt. Her heels were at least three inches high, and gold bracelets jangled on her arms.

Carmelina stuffed down her jealousy. She was here for Marissa. “Are you Jessica Sutton?”

“Yes. Are you serving me papers or something?” She frowned.

Still pretty. Damn. “No, nothing like that.” She put on her best smile. “I’m Carmelina di Rosa. I’m Marissa’s grandmother.”

“Marissa’s grandmother lives in Topeka, and if I never see her again, I’ll be perfectly happy.” She started to close the door.

“Wait!” She pulled out Andrea’s photo. “This was my daughter, Andrea. She was Marissa’s birth mother. She was killed in an accident fifteen years ago, just before you adopted Marissa.”

Jessica paused. “What does that have to do with us?”

“I came here to warn you. I don’t want you to lose your daughter too. Please, may I come in?”

Jessica stared at her for a long time. At last, she nodded and opened the door wider. “I don’t have much time. Phillip is expecting me at the club in about half an hour.”

 

Recipes courtesy of Fabrizio Montanari and his mother and grandmother.

 

Ragu Alla Romagnola

Ingredients:

•   1/4 cup butter

•   1/2 onion

•   1 carrot, chopped

•   1 celery stalk, chopped

•   1/4 cup pancetta, chopped

•   1-3/4 cups lean ground beef

•   3/4 cup chopped chicken liver

•   1/2 cup red wine

•   Just over a pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled

•   Beef or chicken broth

Serves four people. Melt the butter for about two minutes in a large sauce pan. Add the chopped onions, carrots, celery, and pancetta. Brown these for a few minutes, then add the beef and the chicken liver. Let the beef and chicken brown for a few minutes, and then add the wine. When the wine has evaporated, add the fresh peeled tomatoes. Salt and pepper to taste. Add some beef or chicken broth, spoonful by spoonful, also to taste. Let it cook on medium heat for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

 

98 - Behind Enemy Lines

“I won’t take too much of your time.” Carmelina stepped inside, letting her eyes adjust to the light. The house was gorgeous. A wide stairway swept up on both sides of the entryway, and beautiful travertine floors and huge paintings gave the place a museum-like quality.

As beautiful as it was, it didn’t feel like the kind of place one raised a child.

“We can talk in here.” Jessica ushered her into a big living room off to the right floored in wide rosewood planks with a brick fireplace that climbed two stories to the high-beamed ceiling. The furniture looked like it had never been sat upon. Carved wooden chairs with stiff backs and white leather upholstery. Two green-marble greyhound statues, one on either side of the fireplace. Glass tables with miniature crystal copies of the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, and other assorted world landmarks.

She’d heard of people who had two living rooms: one to watch TV and another they used only for guests. It was a little pretentious, in her opinion.

They sat across from each other. Carmelina refrained from picking up the Eiffel tower to see if it had a price tag.

Jessica crossed her hands in her lap. “So what did you want to tell me?”

“Your daughter—my granddaughter—is an amazing young woman.”

“She’s a brat and a thief.” Jessica almost spat it out.

“Maybe so.” Carmelina cast about for a way to reach her. “When I was a girl, I stole a Hershey’s candy bar from the grocery store down the street from my mother’s house. We all did stupid things when we were kids.”

“We also paid the consequences.”

“Maybe.” She’d never been caught, but her father would have tanned her hide if he’d known. “Look, I know you’re angry with her. And you don’t agree with everything she has said and done.”

Jessica nodded. “She knows what she did. I came to her school a few weeks ago. I asked her to come home—”

“But only if she renounced who she was.” Marcos had filled her in on that.

Jessica shook her head. “She’s just pulling this lesbian crap to get back at us. She’s not a lesbian. No one’s born like that.”

Carmelina laughed. “I could introduce you to a bunch of my friends who might tell you differently.”

“I’m really sorry, but I have to go. Ms.… Di Rosa, was it? Let me show you out.” She started to get up.

“You’re going to lose her.”

That brought Jessica back down to her seat.

“Whether you’re angry with her or not, whether you think you can change her or just want to get through to her… you’re going to lose her.” She held out the photo of Andrea. “I gave up my daughter for adoption, and by the time I tried to find her, it was far too late.”

Jessica took it, looking from the photo to Carmelina. “It’s not the same—”

“I know. But if you show up in court tomorrow and testify against your own daughter…” She shivered. She couldn’t imagine doing something like that to someone she loved. “At best she gets off, and she never talks with you or sees you again. At worst… Did you know she has a real talent for cooking?”

“Cooking?” Jessica’s brow furrowed.

“Yes. She has been taking a cooking class at a local Italian restaurant. They want to groom her to be a chef. She has quite a gift for it.”

“A chef?”

Carmelina nodded. “She could really make something of herself. But here you are, ready to derail her dreams to send her to juvie or worse. And for what? To punish her? To be vindictive? To get back at her for daring to tell you the truth?”

“She was always so angry with me—”

Carmelina laughed again. “She’s a teenager. That’s who they are! And did you think about the fact that, in three more days, she’ll be an adult? That you won’t have any more hold on her at all?”

“I… She doesn’t want anything to do with us anyhow.”

“Teenagers are like that. Moody one moment, sullen the next. Look, can I give you some advice?”

“You haven’t been shy about that so far.”

Carmelina snorted. “Here it is. Let this go. Drop the charges and take a step back. Maybe we can find a way to get you together with her when things have cooled down.”

“It’s too late for that.”

“Only if you let it be.”

* * *

The next morning, the three of them waited outside the courtroom. Carmelina was nervous. What if she hadn’t gotten through to Marissa’s mother?

Marissa herself sat on one of the wooden benches, dressed like a respectable young woman, though she kept scratching her arm through the white blouse as though it were giving her hives.

Marcos was pacing back and forth, staring at the closed doors. “They’re running late.”

Carmelina nodded. “Whatever happens, we’ll get through this.”

Marissa looked up. “I know. Thank you guys for being here.”

“It’s the waiting that’s the worst.” Marcos sat down next to Marissa and hugged her. “You have a new family now. We’ll take care of you.”

“Excuse me. Are you Marissa Sutton?” A middle-aged gentleman in a sharp gray suit and wire-rimmed glasses stood before them.

Marissa nodded. “I am. Who are you?”

“I’m Chet Clifton. I’m the attorney for your parents.”

“They’re not my parents.”

Chet shot Carmelina a confused look.

She shrugged.

“In any case, your mother—”

“Not my mother.”

“—Jessica Sutton asked me to tell you that they’re dropping the charges.”

Marissa looked up, her eyes wide. “They what?”

“It’s over?” Marcos said at the same time.

“Yes. You’re free to go. The hearing has been cancelled.”

“Holy shit!” Marissa jumped up and into Marcos’s arms. “It’s over!”

He laughed. “We’re gonna go out and get something at Biba to celebrate!

“Can we go to Ragazzi instead?”

Marcos nodded. “Whatever you want.”

“I have to text Tris. Can I invite him along?”

“Of course. Have him meet us there.”

Marissa strolled off down the hallway, texting intently.

Carmelina smiled. She was happy that Jessica had made the right choice. Maybe there was still hope for a reconciliation between Marissa and her adoptive parents. Now Marcos and Marissa could celebrate together. She sighed.

Marcos watched Marissa for a moment, then turned to Carmelina. “You didn’t have anything to do with this, did you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She smiled.

He grinned. “Thank you.” He threw his arms around her. “Thank you so much,” he whispered in her ear.

“You’re welcome.” She let him go. “I should head out. I have some yard work to do at home.”

Marcos looked crestfallen. “I was hoping you would celebrate with us.”

“Really?” It was her turn to smile. “I’d love to. I didn’t want to interrupt you two—”

“You’re her grandmother. You should be there.”

Her smile widened to a grin. “That’s so good to hear.”

“I’ll call Dave, and we’ll make a family lunch of it.”

“Got it. I’ll meet you there in…” She checked her watch. “About an hour?”

“Perfect.” He kissed her on both cheeks. “See you soon.”

It was going to be a great day. She needed more of those.

On her way back to her car, she ran into an unexpected pair.

“Ciao, bella!” Diego gave her a hug.

“What are you two doing here?”

“We’re seeing a judge about dissolving our marriage,” Matteo said. “Now that Luna’s no longer with us…”

“So we can marry again.”

“Congratulations! Where are you getting married? At a church?” Another wedding. She loved weddings.

Matteo shook his head. “At the courthouse. Next week, if everything goes well today.”

In a courthouse? “Okay. Well, good luck with that.” She kissed them both.

“Grazie!”

As they walked inside, she pulled out her phone and texted Sam. There was no way her friends were getting married at the courthouse. “Sam? We need to talk.”

 

 

Check back in two weeks for the next part of the story – published the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month.

 

Like what you’ve been reading? You can order it in book form and read the whole thing now:

 

Amazon eBook: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DCFPCGZ/

Amazon Paperback: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1732307504/

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You can also visit Scott’s webpage and join his email list at https://www.jscottcoatsworth.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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