Plastic banner flags attached to a string fly above my head. They hold an artificial pleasantness comparable to banana Popsicles, or blueberry muffins bought from a store; the triangular flags’ function is solely to mark off the carnivals games from the food booths. Oh, the foods — tamales, tostadas, flautas, halupki, haluski, hot dogs, French fries — all flavorful offerings to customers of discriminating taste who don’t see the women and men tucked in the kitchen cooking hot foods in the heat of the summer sizzle. I apply sauces to the flautas from the condiments table — spicy green, tangy red, cool cream colored – homemade is better when combined with the outside air. I walk into the area where games of chance are played.
Looking upward, the plastic nature of the flags contained a hidden beauty to my eyes I confess. That material which to a child adds texture and color is ignored by the festival guests who walk unaware underneath it. The markers remain unremarkable to the bifocal-eyed men lined up against the rope of the beer garden. Unimportant to all but my eyes I assume.
I watch with wonder the carnival that contains a combined crew of white-haired and sturdy church ladies and tough looking Puerto Rican men wearing yellow tees with Spanish words splashed across which I cannot read (but I recognize the rosary decal on their backs). The races mixing — Eastern European old immigrants with young Puerto Rican ones sharing a faith, a nod, a laugh. Side-by-side, the people stop to listen to the eight-piece band of aging men reliving the glory days of yesterday when their hair was long, and their futures bright. Fading into old age as ungracefully as they may, the music was the same as twenty years before. They play with skill acquired over time, where years before passion led them.
The band members take turns demonstrating the prowess, while a silver haired lady in tight spandex pants (whose black color does little to hide her girth) dances with the abandonment she must have used forty years before as a beautiful young woman, hair flowing over her back, when she danced with her sweetheart, beckoning her to come away with him. Then joining her on the grass dance floor, a Latino lady a foot taller than her middle-aged partner sways to the tunes as she leads him in the steps. I stare at his stubbly fingers and thick glasses which give away his Down Syndrome. His exuberance overcomes me; he looks as if he dances in this hour a thousand times more happily than I did in my youth. I envy him — full of joy in the middle of a sparse crowd of church going people and town folks who love the festive atmosphere on a sweaty night in August.
The man with Down Syndrome and his neighbor exit the grassy place dedicated to those too carefree to mind if the rest of us stare at the spectacle of their happiness.
A man with thin hair and a thin beard moves past the metal chairs on the other side of our table where I sit with my grown son and daughter. Following him is his companion, a woman who’s probably his age, but he looks younger somehow. He turns to us and asks, “Can we sit here?”
There are many empty chairs in the beer garden. I reply, “Sure.” The friendly nature of the carnival has made it impossible to deny such a small favor.
He replies, “I can’t face that.” He points to the band.
I nod in an almost agreement. His companion sits down across from us; her buttered pierogies contain irregular lines which is a telltale sign a hand rather than a machine created them.
The man looks as if the Flower Revolution had captured him in a time warp, but his lady wears a sensible tee shirt and shorts and looks like today’s ordinary woman. He returns with his beer in a small plastic cup. I glance and notice that a truck is facing the band and three taps are attached to the silver wall in its bed, and so the beer flows from a pick-up. He starts to talk. He’s a talker. The lady is not.
We begin a dance of questions followed by answers as the band takes a break. He’s a cook and he told us he likes beer; beer is good any day, so is weed — as he says it, he covers his mouth remembering he is at a church festival (as if the covering of the instrument of revelation might protect his admission). Not missing a beat of timing, I change the topic to address his lady and how are her pierogies? I mention my grandmother’s Pigs in the Blanket (we never called them by the polish name of halupki, but we are not Poles) were superior to the ones being served. I point out she used half pork and half beef. The man states that’s the proper way to make them for pork contains grease. He explains he learned such things in his four years in cooking school, things like adding stout beer to turkey. We become friends, and he asks me my name. His is Slim and he tells me he won’t remember mine, but it’s okay as we’ll probably never meet again anyway.
The band begins again after their break, and it’s too loud to talk to Slim and so I look across the triangle colored flags and see a young Hispanic woman full of vitality and youth walking across the grassy field. She has dark ringlets of hair long and lovely, full lips, dark eyes, and a voluptuous shape with her tube top orange dress flowing over her large breast and skimming her slight tummy. She is captivating as only someone who is unaware she is beautiful can be, and she manages to weave past the lawn chairs dotting the field and scoops up her month-old baby from a white-haired woman and kisses the child. Then the saxophone playing brings me back the table and to Slim. He is surprised that these two are my children as I suppose he thinks I look too young to have raised them. All the years of wishing to look older seems to have tilted back to wishing to be younger. But I tell him I am very near to the number of his years lived wandering this earth.
A man who looks the part of a young hippie, pink tank top, braided hair, glasses and stubbled chin, walks over to us and says my son’s name. They spent their teenage years playing music together in various places around the town. I ask him how is his little girl, and say she must now be walking instead of crawling. He replies his apartment is small and so chasing her down is easy. Those happy days of too small apartments glow inside my mind as I look at my own children sipping beer. My son gets up and faces his friend, and they converse as if his years away at college hadn’t happened as it goes when meeting an old friend.
Then it was time for me to go back to working at the games. I bid everyone good-bye. As I walk out of the beer garden, I spy some now grown neighborhood children looking the part of musicians with dreadlocks, beards, and bare feet. These were gentle kids, almost sweet little boys and I knew them well when they played music in my living room. Looking at them, I wonder if middle-aged ladies clutch their purses when the musicians pass them on the street, but yet these are the best of men I would attest.
I notice a good looking young man, shaved head, sunglasses blocking out the sun, and his lady; she’s taller, with a hooped ring hanging off of her long, upturned nose. Something about the ring doesn’t quite work, and it appears out-of-place rather than a symbol of rebellion. His demeanor is that of a movie star as he holds firmly onto her hand.
I turn my head as a flute sounds over the noise of the people sitting in lawn chairs. As I walk underneath the plastic flags, I see an artless Spanish Madonna statue that sits on a table that I pass. Still, Mary’s crayon sky blue dress and golden shiny crown have a childlike attraction to me.
For a moment, I stare at the fake and unnatural red roses placed at the foot of the statue, and I see the irregular beauty of such a Madonna. The statue is shaped into an image that a child would hold in high esteem. It’s surrounded by Christmas lights. Small white bulbs attached to a string of green remind me of the Madonna’s role at the original Christmas.
The closing of the summer is marked by a calendar of festivals, and in the oppressively hot night, I wish it was almost Christmas again.
The setting sun casts off its white light over the puffed-up cloud. Florescent brightness illuminates the sky, so clear that it looks artificial. In the clarity of the sun’s rays, I hope for the moment to last a little while longer, yearning like I did when I was young and the church festival was comforting. The fear of summer ending became the joy of seeing old friends that would continue the journey alongside me as fall brought us back from the long break. For a moment I was that girl, small and insignificant, wanting to capture with words what I saw.
Seasons drafted by the slow daily hours eventually reach the finish line. Looking back, I can’t believe the summer is over — where has time gone? Could I already lived so many days?
I must admit that my summer has been over long before. Oh, how a glance of things seems like I’ve lived a life full and fruitful. The days may be numbered, but the heart is still studying its muse. Yet I wonder if hurried others see the plastic nature of a carnival; or seeing choose to gloss it over with an artificial smile?
“You do know that you are a genie, right?”
“Yes, Michael. And you do know that you are flunking Social Studies.”
“How do you do that?” Michael asked as the Genie made himself go from being very tiny to being a normal sized man although he was blue and not any earthly color.
“I'm a genie. I do the impossible. Like help you graduate from elementary school.”
“That's not impossible, that's inevitable because I'll outgrow the desk.”
“I can see why your teacher handed you this bottle.”
“How do you know my teacher?”
“Sandy Wilkins and I go way back to when she was a girl on vacation who happened to pick up my bottle from a pile of rocks. Now she has given you the noble task of controlling my bottle until your three wishes are up. Once they are done, you may set me free or command me to serve another Master.”
“Three wishes? I thought my graduation from elementary school would be my only wish.”
“Done!” The genie's words were followed by a flash of lightning inside Michael's cramped bedroom.
“How'd you do that?”
“It's part of the wish being granted.”
“Neat! I want to see it again!”
The next lightning bolt was followed by the Genie's observation, “That was your second wish. I'm not sure Sandy Wilkins knew what she was doing giving you this bottle.”
“I guess you're right. She handed it to me and said, “ 'Either you study or rub this lamp.' ”
The genie let out a groan and then said, “To think I've spent fifty years waiting for her to make this third wish and this is what it comes down to, a twelve-year-old flunkie.”
“I wish you'd be quiet!” Michael said and lightning dazzled him once again. “Wow! Hey, that wasn't my third wish, was it?”
The genie opened his mouth, but nothing was heard.
“Hey, no fair! I want my wish back!”
The genie tried to say something.
“I can't understand you. I think that I should give this bottle back to Mrs. Wilkins and let her take care of you. Then maybe she'll give you back to me once her three wishes are up and then I'll give her the bottle once my next three wishes are up... hey, stop hitting you head against the wall. My mother will hear you and then what will I tell her? That my teacher gave me a genie so I'd pass her class? You better go back in the bottle until I give you back to Mrs. Wilkins on Monday.”
And with that the genie produced a puff of smoke and disappeared into the bottle.
“I wonder how long it will take Mrs. Wilkins to make three wishes,” Michael said aloud.
The soldiers rode through the villages announcing recent events as if the lives of some were nothing more than a story.
The shock was fresh, and still the ashes had been discarded weeks before the news arrived. When she watched her own child leave to become a soldier, Isabelle had known it might be the last kiss she would bestow upon her lovely baby.
Isabelle had shed many tears of joy at the birth of her child, so many that the little one's flesh was wet with them. Her child grew stronger than the others. Soon a soldier's uniform draped over that child at the dawn of adulthood. War made many things necessary. Even death became necessary.
In a tribute to Isabelle's disbelief at the news, she shed no tears at the word of her child's death. It wasn't in battle where her baby died. If her sweet one fell there, then the honor and dignity would have allowed the tears to spring from her eyes to signal a noble end.
No, her lovely one was executed as a traitor, but not a traitor to country, which would have made her blush with shame, Instead, the claim was her child was a traitor to the faith, and this left Isabelle no recourse that tears might brush aside.
In the harrowing fire the soldier met her end, but would not to the fire of hell, of that Isabelle knew her sweet one would never enter. Death came with a court order to end a life by flames.
The fire of shame Isabelle's daughter was condemned to endure began until the flames silenced her voices forever. Yet the Maid would not bear her suffering alone. Isabelle would bear it too. Her darling child was a warrior, but not of earth, for only heaven would capture her spirit.
To the end of the days of earth, Joan of Arc would be recalled in the tears which fell at each rain, and her own mother, Isabelle of Arc, would keep watch for the storm clouds that would recall the flames of judgment by unjust men.
Gordon R. Howe was the richest man in the world. As he approached his ninety-second birthday, his lovely wife gushed about how he took three dollars and invested it in the stock market in oil way back before most people owned cars. It was a lucky guess he told her and one that shaped the rest of his life. Gordon's three mistresses arrived at the birthday bash each with a different cover, and were put into three separate rooms.
Gordon went to his office and poured himself a large highball and he recalled how his doctor told him he needed a new liver twenty years ago and warned him that it was rare to find a perfect match. Gordon's charitable foundation ran advertisements and a donor was found. Of course, the girl whose liver matched didn't understand that she couldn't live without her liver, but the check cleared and she showed up at the hospital because she had a nasty drug habit, which was exploited by the police chief with political ambitions after he picked her up off the streets for turning tricks.
Gordon R. Howe owned many powerful men in high standing. The private trips to white sandy beaches full of underage girls in bikinis made his business dealings grow and the richest man in the world wouldn't be charged even when the dead body of his former business partner found its way on his property. Gordon had the guards take photos of the prescription bottle next to the body. Gordon had no fear of being arrested as the law only applied to those unable to buy good help.
The birthday party was full of famous folks whom Gordon had helped in one way or the other and the woman wore diamonds and dresses by the most famous designers. The men took calls during the dinner party.
Gordon felt flush at the end of dessert.
The fabulous life of a gambler was coming to an end as Gordon slumped over at his seat. The lucky life had all ups and no downs, until the moment his soul was severed from his body. A very surprised Gordon R. Howe looked down at his dead self and up at a man holding a contract.
“Remember our deal?” the man said.
“I remember,” Gordon said.
“If you give me your soul, then your luck would never run out.”
“I never signed it! I never signed it!” Gordon protested.
“Your signature wasn't necessary, I have evidence.”
“What evidence?” Gordon asked.
“The evidence of how you lived your life.”
I shan’t look up. I use my fingers to sew and I move them rapidly. He glances down into my face as the softness of the candlelight warms me. Our congregation is blessed to have Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale here in Boston.
I, a mere youth, took to fancy the warmth of Roger’s offer of matrimony, for he was my superior in intellect, wisdom, and wealth. The safe hearth his home provided gave me all the reasons I needed to marry him. As an advancement of Roger’s age took away his desire, I resigned myself to the comfort of conversation.
The Reverend took this confession with little shock contrary to my fears. Tis a relief to confide in such a man of upmost character.
Arthur began to instruct me in my ignorance not long after Roger’s voyage across the Atlantic began. As a member of the church, the attention seemed not out of the ordinary at first.
This, the third month since we began our course of instruction, has proven to be the most wonderful of all my years. Arthur, he has insisted I pray call him Arthur, has moved his finger across my hand again. I shall not give in to the enjoyment of the closeness of his finger to the palm of my hand as he twists it as to see the way I stitch the letters. My vanity must not stir, and the beauty of my needlepoint speaketh for my heart. The letter “A” only a seamstress of skill could create is my silent profession of desire.
My face blushes as he asks me. “Hester, pray tell, what it doth represent?”
I see his eyes full of fire as he speaketh. My finger trembles as he caresses my palm. The letter I hold presses dearer to my heart than my thumb. The fancy scarlet color as bright as the hottest embers give his name new meaning. The letter “A” has only one desire in my breast, for Arthur to forgetteth his duty to the church and become a mortal man. Mortal man of Adam’s heritage, to see the woman before him as part of him as the rib to which she was formed forth! Two are one and flesh will not deny my churning for his touch!
The slowness of his response brings forth a sorrow too harrowing for me to carry as a bundle! His love denied, his truth revealed. My scarlet letter as rich as fancy will be cast aside by his collar!
Lo, Arthur takes his hand and moves it to my head and I breathe rapidly as he loosens the pin which holds my hair fast. As my hair falls, my lover kisses my lips as the candle burns. He stoops low and his sweetest sigh tells me his name has been burned in my breast.
When my husband Roger was reported lost at sea, I knew tis meant he had gone to his reward. When my Reverend spoke at his memorial, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him,” I knew he had the heart of a man close to God’s love.
Four months passed since the vows we severed brought forth the child in my womb. No longer shall I hide the secret from the townsfolk. Out of love God giveth desire, and from our love springs forth his child and my heart will never deny him. Henceforth, the church will turn against me and band me an adulterer. Tis truth pray I shall not deny, but his name shall never part from my lips. The last call he maketh upon our secret rendezvous, my heart speaketh truth again. Long will I live with my sin hidden. I spoketh the fear and folly for I have fallen far from God! My Arthur insists on his punishment being observed, yet I reproach him! Two to live a burden would break my heart, and secrets are meant to be held in reserve. My lover shakes his head and I plead!
“If I bear the shame alone, I feel atonement for my sin!” My Arthur turns his ear to listen. Methinks he has heard! He breaks down with his gentle hands placed into mine. As I kiss them with softness, I feel them tremble.
“No, dearest, do not weep,” I sayeth, “For my joy is to be born through labor’s pains. The child shall be my pearl and our love will bear her name.”
He kisses me with closed lips. Was it my imagination? I felt the genuine lack of warmth in his kiss.
Two years together, and lately he always followed me around. Yet, it's not like in the beginning when I loved his attention. Maybe I should leave him. We are predicable, me working and paying the bills, he is tinkering in the basement since he stopped working three months ago. Long ago we did everything together, from going to the grocery store, to weekends on wine tours. It happened to be lovely. Now, I doubted he'd glance up from the computer when I entered the room.
I go upstairs, like usual, when I got home from the hospital after my shift.
I jump in the shower. The warmth of the water washes away my doubt. I put on a robe and wrap my hair in a towel, which makes me look like a mummy.
I walk down the stairs and I hear a faucet left running. I go to the sink and turn the handle to close it. What's he up to now?
I see the back door is open a crack and I look outside and Dewy is moving the wood to the wood pile with his scarf flying in the wind. I shut the door and then I hear a sound. It's not a usual one, like the T.V. switching between programming and paid commercials, or the bark of a dog outside, or even the sound of the wind bellowing through the wooden frame of the house and down the fireplace. No, it's a gurgling.
I feel paralyzed as I listen. The I hear a banging. It's coming from the basement. Do I go down? I glance at Dewy and he is half way through the wood pile. Then I hear a loud boom. Is it the furnace? Maybe the water heater? My feet stick to the tile as I move to open the door to the basement. I flick on the light and I move down the stairs with a fast gallop.
I get to the water heater and I see nothing amiss. Then I turn to the furnace and I take a flashlight from Dewy's tool box and flash it to the back of the furnace. I hear another bang as the furnace grinds to a halt. The coolness of the cement floor and the grinding halt of the furnace make me shiver. It will never give us warmth again.
I flash the light to the very back of the machine, and as I peer through the spider webs, I see an adult skull set carefully behind the tubes. My heart flutters and skips wildly and I feel faint. The blood rushes from my face to my heart.
I must escape and I must go before he knows I've seen it. I turn to go and he's next to me. Dewy's long nails dig into my arm.
Sidney felt a trickle on his face, but with the rain falling it had to be expected. The shanty was a boarded up den of wood sent down on the riverboat long ago when the ghost town lived a fine life. Chipped pieces of timber flake off the walls and he kicked the dead cattle skull that sat on the floor boards. Once this beast, like the town, had a name.
The flooded roads forced him into the building when he realized his gas gauge was wrong and he ran out of gas on the highway that ran near the old town.
Inside the aged place, a photograph of a young woman sat on the shelf, perfectly preserved in the remains of the place nobody remembered.
Sidney took out his phone and tried to get a signal. He found none and sighed. When the rain stopped, he'd walk back to the highway and hitch hike. He remembered a town somewhere not too far back on the road he had taken.
The photo seemed to indicate the woman was someone important. Her eyes seemed soft as if they would live on in the two dimensional outtake of the forgotten three dimensional woman.
He took the etched glass framed picture into his hands. He brought her image closer to his eyes. The haunting glance that she gave the camera made him wonder who she was. The dress she wore draped her figure to her ankles. Yet despite the old fashioned clothing she had an appearance of a modern girl. His hand gripped the photograph and his index finger touched her face. It was almost a sacred act to touch her.
He felt the swirl of wind flow through the holes in the walls like the spirits made their way through that time to this one. The rain stopped all at once as if the ghosts demanded they be allowed to go back to sleep. He set the picture back onto the shelf. The dust from the neglected years turned into a film of slime.
With the rain gone, he went out of the building, happy to leave the place.
A mile down the road, he saw a welcome sight – a car. He waved vigorously as the sedan passed. The returned bright sunlight made the glass of the sedan glare.
He turned around to wait. He waited to see if the car would stop. After a moment of breath holding, the car pulled to the side of the road. He ran to the halfway rolled down window, still unable to see as the rays of the setting sun reached the metal car.
“What happened to you?” a female voice asked through the window.
“I ran out of gas. Please, could you give me a lift?” Sidney said.
“I don't give rides to strangers.”
“Oh, well.” Sidney looked up and over the roadway. “Can you call a tow truck for me? I'm a tourist – ”
He went around to the passenger side and got inside the car.
He turned to say thank you and stared at the woman. She was the woman in the photograph -- or at least she looked strikingly similar. Sidney felt a strange feeling, as if an arrow opened up his heart.
Sidney thought of the ghost town as he glanced into the rear view mirror.
Kent took off the protective ear plugs and heard the bobbing. The drill’s thrusting through solid rocks caused the thin bubbling of reddish liquid oozing up through the cracks and this began to concern him. Only a thermal suit came between him and the liquid.
He hated this job. His father signed him up for a five year stint the year he was born. Dad said he was lucky to get the work and by signing up his son, it meant the mining company would have a replacement if anything went wrong.
Kent walked over to the machine to manually shut off the switch in the control room. Move a little too much to the left, and he’d be crushed by the swinging drill, too much to the right and he wouldn’t reach the switch. It was supposed to be automated. Supposed to be and actually is were worlds apart. Just like he was from his mother. He recalled things, the softness of her voice, the way he could hug her forever and she wouldn’t complain. After his eighth birthday, he was sent to live on Voterra with his Dad at the mining town.
Voterra only had light from its sun every other day and for this reason wasn't considered a desirable location, but the people were there to make fast money and then get out.
There was a pledge that the company made which stated all of its employees were retired at thirty-five and would be free to settle into retirement with a pension. It was a lie. No many men or women made it to thirty.
Dad didn’t know it back when the fracking on Voterra started. He didn’t know a lot of things. The protective layer surrounding the planet was shrinking and some of the most learned men attributed it to the radioactive material that seeped up as the drill went down. But the yorkic rock vein produced a pure form of a natural Voterra gas that was sent to various planets. It was the most important discovery of a hundred years.
Two more workers approached, and with helmets. He hadn’t thought it was necessary. The signaled him to follow. His own work clothes were only a thin level of protection, and Kent’s boots had an inch of thick red slime sticking to them.
Fracking had made Voterra a boom planet among all the other planets in the Junior Galaxy Way where the colonies expanded. Rocket fuel was cheap.
His misery was to be stuck in a job his father had, and now he watched his father dying of radiation poisoning at the age of forty-four. Everyone blamed it on his old man's greed, nobody works to forty on this rig.
As Kent walked, the red goo began to drip off his boots. Kent and his coworkers walked out of the chopped up rocky pit and up a steep hill. The view beyond the mining site was spectacular. A bronze sky touched the ground covered with a jade colored plant called the rem. He loved the smell of the rem as the fragrance was sweet and faintly like the pine trees he knew from earth. A small flower-like plant grew among the rem and the site of early morning Voterra filled him with wonder.
To his left was the road leading into town, and the three workers hopped into a ship that transported them back to the company owned apartments. Working the night shift was a difficult deal for the worker as he would never enjoy a normal life, but with his dad so near the end of his life, Kent needed the extra pay in order to care for him.
Once his dad died, in a morbid sense, Kent would be free. Would he return to earth and try to find his mother? How would he support himself there? Once a miner always a miner.
Earth was so backwards. If he was born into any other planet system, then he would have been better off. No one of significance stayed back on earth. All the exciting opportunities were elsewhere and that little back woods place was rarely talked about. If Kent’s mother wasn’t a native earthling, then he would probably head out for Yewtown in the fifth galaxy where he might mine for double pay.
The company might give him permission to visit Earth after his dad died, and he would request the last known address for his mother who by all likelihood was dead.
He hopped off the ship as it slowed by his apartment complex, the approached the conveyer belt and the machine pulled him along as a chemical spray covered him. Everyone knew was a lie that the chemicals worked to stop the cancer most miners died from, but it was policy. Maybe it made those in charge sleep better at night. The red film around his boots washed down a drain.
He took the elevator up to the apartment and opened the door with his card. He saw the place was neat as a pin. He went to the drawer in the kitchen and pulled out a small laser. Kent whipped around to see two cleaning women he hadn’t authorized and had no money to pay, and they screamed as they looked at the laser.
“It's okay, Mister!” the taller one said.
“Why are you in my apartment?” Kent asked.
“Not yours anymore,” she said in a broken English as she picked up her bucket full of cleaners.
Kent lowered the laser. “What do you mean?”
The other woman handed him a computer tablet. He read that he was being evicted immediately.
“Where’s my dad?” he asked.
“They didn’t tell you?” the tall woman said. “Oh, I’m sorry. He…he’s dead. Died last night. The chip was removed and he was cremated probably an hour ago. The notice will have the address where you may pick up the remains. I’m sorry. They should have sent someone to tell you out at the fields."
Kent read the fine print and said, “Why should they care? Well, then I guess I’ll pack up my things and go.”
“I packed them already,” the woman said.
Kent looked up from the tablet. “I suppose when you’re out, you’re out.”
“I could talk to my boss--"
“No, it’s okay. I expected my father wouldn't live much longer. Maybe this is better. The notice says I’m entitled to ride the ship to any destination of my choosing as a part of my termination.”
“Where will you go?” the maid asked.
“I’m heading for Earth.”
“Earth? Well that’s a strange choice. Any particular reason?”
“Nope,” Kent lied.
Written for maximum impact.