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Total Loss

A Lifetime Erased by Fire

ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Illustrations by Jen Renninger The fire on Isherwood Street began with an explosion. Residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC, reported their windowpanes rattling and bed frames shaking from the blast. Cars stopped on the roads. A driver inspected his tires fearing one had inexplicably burst. Another man believed he’d overheard a sonic boom from nearby Andrews military base. But the blast site was far less conspicuous: a four-condo-unit row house whose front door now lay like shrapnel, flung a hundred feet from its original threshold. Soon, sirens crescendoed. A wild, unfurling bloom of light and heat ravaged the building. Neighbors filtered out of their homes and onto Isherwood, searching for answers, as fleets of firemen, detectives, gawkers, and news crews swarmed the scene. 

I was not there to see, but when my sister, Laurie, arrived, she says she parked her car askew in the middle of the street and left the keys in the ignition. I imagine her wandering into the crowd with a sleepwalker’s gait, determined but imprecise. “I live here,” she told a police officer, who permitted her beyond the yellow tape. There, she stood before the home she owned, watching the whole thing burn to the ground.

In unit 202, Laurie’s cat, Lila, and dog, Smalls, were trapped, and could not be saved. Nor could 201’s Tenley, a sweet, lumbering Great Dane. All but one of Laurie’s neighboring condo owners could be accounted for: the man in 101, a seemingly docile single fellow known fondly in the area as an animal lover. A few bystanders claimed to have seen him enter the building an hour before the explosion.

When she could muster the words, Laurie spoke with me on the phone. By then, the flames had subsided, revealing the building’s stark, skeletal foundation. Only its brick façade remained. Smoke-rimmed windows framed squares of bright blue sky where curtains and Roman blinds once obscured private lives. Her voice sounded both fiercely present and far away. “It’s all gone,” she repeated over and over. “It’s all gone.”

I boarded a train for DC that night. Tall men in suits crowded the dining-car tables, presumably en route from New York’s Penn Station to their homes in the suburbs. They recapped the day’s closed deals and stock turns, swirled their plastic cups of Scotch on the rocks—details so ordinary as to seem surreal or unwittingly callous, now that all my sister’s worldly possessions had been obliterated. At thirty-six, Laurie purchased her two-bedroom condo after a years-long search for the soundest possible investment and savviest use of her life’s savings. Laurie liked to describe herself as “risk averse.” Government worker, retirement planner, donner of bike helmets, buckler of seat belts. At twenty-nine, I worked in a bar, and had lofty artistic ambitions, with little more to my name than a pittance-like low-interest savings account, perma-renting for the foreseeable future. And yet, my cats were alive, my favorite vintage dress hung safely in my closet. 

I thought of my mother, whom we called Umma. Before I left New York for DC, she had called to coordinate travel. She’d arrive from Miami at midnight, a half hour ahead of me.

“Are you bringing anything?” I’d asked. “I should bring things…” 

We both paused, the enormity of Laurie’s predicament racking into focus. She would need everything again. But what now? Snacks? Toiletries? Alcohol? 

Then, my mother shouted, “Panties!”


“Panties!” she said. “She does not have panties with her, I am sure! Please bring panties!” 

I did not like hearing my mother say the word “panties.” More disturbing, though, was the utter delirium in her voice, which rattled in a fragile, desperate vibrato. Laurie had nearly worked from home that day. She was alive. 

So, I bought new underwear, and stuffed those into a suitcase of goods that seemed both essential and useless: a split of red wine, sneakers, a loofah, pajama pants, a hairbrush, whiskey, chocolate. 

Before hanging up, my mother added, “What Laurie feels, I feel one hundred times more. Umma hurts one hundred times more.”

This parting comment seemed a pinch delusional. Maternal transitive heartache aside, the plain fact was that a fire had annihilated my sister’s home and its contents. How could my mother understand that kind of undoing? 

The men in suits disembarked at Princeton, New Jersey, pig-pink in the cheeks, and I imagined their happy arrivals at revamped colonial houses, dinner tables set for the whole family, hemmed with polite children and wives who asked, “And how was your day, honey?” The kind of home I had always wanted as a child. Meanwhile, the train wheels trembled, rolling onward to my sister’s city of ghosts.

In the thirty-eight years my mother has lived in the States, she has owned ten different houses. My parents’ marriage was not harmonious, so I think the act of buying homes served as one tangible way she could improve her life over the years. My father used to pump gas for a Mobile station in downtown Los Angeles, and my mother, the breadwinner, was a registered nurse; they both emigrated to California from Seoul, South Korea, in the late 1970s, so when it comes to the ten houses, we are not talking about wealth either, so much as status, or rather the pursuit of desirable status. They wanted the American home, paid for with American dollars—a kind of assimilation through commerce. As with most immigrants, buying a house was their chip to throw into the pot, to ante up, to belong in the game of America’s middle class.

But my father’s spotty employment, coupled with balloon payments and their tenuous relationship, allowed for little permanence in their early years as Americans. This was pre-subprime mortgage crisis, when one could potentially dip in and out of residential investments without the threat of insurmountable debt. Laurie was just a baby when they started to move from house to apartment, house to apartment. 

In the periwinkle one-story my family lived in the longest, my mother hung a small wooden sign in the hallway, which displayed in perky hand-scrawled calligraphy: home is where the heart is. Though this phrase is said to have originated with Roman philosopher and naval commander Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), its spirit is unquestionably American. My mother didn’t profess such sentimental domestic notions outright, nor was she raised by any similar, cozy tenets in her war-torn country. But my sister and I were, and “home,” as I understood it, was the structure itself, a fixed place that implied: Here is where a family lays its roots and stays together.

My sister had been living in DC for ten years before deciding to buy a place of her own. She didn’t readily admit it, but she had always imagined starting a home with a husband. Unmarried and without pending marital plans, she browsed the market anyway, proof to herself she could manage alone. No more sinking money into rent. Time to build equity. Time to grow up, she’d reasoned. 

But fire does not abide by reason. In its destructive trail, there are empty bank accounts, unreturned voice mails, FedExed checks, hours upon hours of smooth-jazz hold music, fine print written in inscrutable jargon, and the summary Laurie learned to say for expediency’s sake: “My house exploded in a catastrophic fire. Can you please help me?” 

Damage of this magnitude, in the insurance world, is categorized as “total loss”—or more specifically, “constructive total loss,” meaning the cost for repair exceeds the value of the property itself. While the emotional devastation may be incalculable, a total-loss designation requires the prudent examination of one’s property, to place a price on what has become extinct. Claims adjusters arrive to hold clipboards, file paperwork, and quantify what little is left of your material life. This seems impossibly frank, if not crude, but perhaps it is necessary to handle loss of this kind so matter-of-factly. There, in the rubble, the vestiges of one’s resolve are much more difficult to wrangle or define. We are empty. That is, until a new force fills us up: the shape-shifting beast of grief.

For the first few nights, the Red Cross lodged us at a Holiday Inn Express. We woke up the day after the fire in hotel whites and the crisp static chill of central air. I set up a donation page for my sister on a crowdfunding website, which quickly amassed a remarkable show of support from friends and strangers alike. Coworkers furnished Laurie with the actual items she needed for day-to-day maintenance: contact solution, hair ties, deodorant, toothbrush, and toothpaste. My mother tasked herself with finding local TV news coverage of the fire. Meanwhile, Laurie had locked herself in the bathroom (a makeshift cloister/office) and sat on the toilet, phone pasted to her ear. There were many calls to make: to her insurance company (which could not be reached), to her neighbors, her work; or she fielded calls from community representatives, DC police, and the ATF. According to early evidence, the fire hadn’t been a fluke. Detectives proceeded, treating the case as a criminal investigation.

I made calls, too. I borrowed her summary: “My sister’s house just exploded in a catastrophic fire. Can you please help us close her account?” One customer-service representative asked to speak with Laurie personally. He had seen the fire on TV, but needed her verbal consent. Couldn’t he make an exception? I could hear her crying inside the bathroom. No, he couldn’t be swayed. So I lifted the receiver away for a moment and returned to the call, faux weepy, posing as my sister. Did I want to close my account? the agent asked. “Yes,” I whimpered. “You can put your sister back on the line,” he said. I pulled the phone away again, making sure to switch to my firm but distressed sisterly voice for the remainder of the call. “When can you return the cable box to the company?” he asked. Perhaps we hadn’t been clear. “There is no building, no apartment, no modem, and certainly no cable box,” I said. What did he want from us? Bubble-Wrapped ash? “Sorry for her loss,” he said, before hanging up.

Mimicking the older sister is the role younger sisters are destined to play, wearing hand-me-downs, stealing mannerisms, copying catch phrases. When I was little, I distilled womanhood from Laurie’s changing image, as if beholding that transformation might teach me how to grow up, too. 

If you are in the habit of categorizing sisters, Laurie is the pragmatic one. She didn’t walk until she was fifteen months old, but when she did, she never fell, not once. I started walking at eight months old. I had a very large head for a baby. While I plowed through our home, top-heavy and carefree, my sister ran after me, blocking every sharp corner. Laurie likes to tell this story, for it perfectly captures our differences, or how some people barrel through life because that is the only way they know how to live. 

These days we share the same staccato laugh, but are otherwise unlike each other. Still, after the fire, I slipped back into her shadow easily. This loss was definitively hers. I could only work as an agent of her grief, block the sharp corners, return the favor, and behold her changing image again, a ruin so finite and bewildering and real.

In the average lifetime, one’s household has a one-in-four chance of catching fire. This could range anywhere from small- to large-scale incidents due to, say, a cooking mishap, or an errant bolt of lightning, or an abandoned and still-smoldering cigarette. The odds that your home might burn up entirely are finer: according to one estimate, likely less than 1 percent. 

I could not unearth a statistic to match Laurie’s particular situation though, which is unique due to the man in unit 101. He had a sister, too. I wonder if he called her that day. Coworkers noticed he left his job a few hours early. Sources say he took his dog, Bella, for a walk. Then, he doused his home with accelerant, ignited the fire, and perished there, in the realm of his own design. It is unclear whether he had been plotting his suicide for a long while or not. No one truly knows the depths of his despair. But for years, tenants complained of an unspeakably fetid odor emanating from the man’s home. Theories as to what caused the initial explosion remain inconclusive. That may not have been part of the plan. It’s possible, too, that he had even changed his mind, for one witness claims to have seen the man engulfed in flames, scrambling, perhaps, for a way out.

A simple clerical error led to the disappearance of my sister’s insurance claim. Someone misfiled her as a renter rather than an owner. A full twenty-four hours lapsed and Laurie had yet to make contact with an insurance adjuster, the gatekeeper to her funds and recovery. Laurie’s fellow unit owners held policies with a different agency, and their assistance arrived promptly on scene. 

The day after the fire, we met everyone a couple blocks away from Isherwood Street. Squad cars and fire trucks still lined the area, and police tape, a flimsy yet unbreachable barrier, belted us off from the property in question. Laurie’s neighbors clustered in a nearby alley: Denise, who owned unit 201, alongside her renters, Ryan and Sarah; Tim, who owned unit 102, and his insurance adjuster, a middle-aged man who wore an alarmingly crimson polo shirt. The adjuster ran through some protocols before handing Tim a check for interim pocket money. No one else but me seemed to notice the adjuster’s badly burned skin, which had healed a long time ago in a rough-hewn patchwork across his neck and arms. Laurie listened to him attentively, all the while lamenting her decision to tack on homeowner’s coverage to her preexisting car-insurance policy. At the time, the choice seemed convenient. A quick Google search of her insurance company nets countless horror stories from other policyholders suffering large-scale home damage. But Laurie did not perform this search, for she did not entertain the likelihood of becoming a worst-case scenario. 

The insurance policy for the row house itself—unrelated to the policies for each individual condo unit—was another problem entirely. That account hadn’t been updated in nearly a decade, which undervalued the property by tens of thousands of dollars. My sister and her neighbors would have to restore the whole building along with their individual apartments to retain any bit of their investments, which could take years. Tim’s adjuster answered as many questions as he could in broad strokes, while DC’s opaque summer heat hovered swamp-thick in the air. I stepped aside, seeking any shadow or leafy branch to relieve me from the sun. My mother had wandered off on her own to the police tape. Gazing myopically through the viewfinder of her iPhone, she snapped photo after photo of the distant wreckage, in desperate acquisition. With her sun hat and clashed-pattern outfit, she looked like an Asian tourist who got lost on the way to the Washington Monument.

Before she owned her first house, my mother lived in an apartment with a seventy-year-old woman named Grace Gaye. They split the telephone bill and rent on a two-bedroom duplex in downtown Sacramento, California. Back then, in 1977, my mother stowed a Korean-English dictionary in one pocket and an English-Korean dictionary in the other. Whenever anyone asked her a question, she scurried into the nearest bathroom stall and scanned both books, decoding each word for its new sound and meaning. 

By 1994, my mother spoke English fluently. She had purchased and resold six houses, and we lived in the seventh. Any real-estate curiosities she’d formed over the years had morphed into an obsession. Every time we passed an open house sign, staked into a lawn or posted on a street corner, a great compulsion overtook her. Like Sleeping Beauty drawn to the spinning wheel’s spindle, she diverted our course for that sharp, bright light, and nothing could stop her. She changed lanes and U-turned her way to parking lots and driveways festooned with rainbow pennant flags and colored balloons. She paced empty kitchens, dining, living, and master bedrooms, assessing linen closets and one- or two-car garages. Did the backyard have a gate? Was the washing machine a top-loader? I learned what “0.5” of a bathroom meant, and the difference between Berber and plush carpeting, deciphering buzzy acronyms like EIK (eat-in kitchen) and HWF (hardwood floors). Other mothers had day dates with girlfriends, for tea or wine. My mother spent her free time touring neighborhoods with her real-estate agent. They chatted about starting prices, amenities, and charming street names, because my mother’s singular desire was to find her dream home. 

She got close with the house on Normandy Way. We moved there my senior year, to a town located an hour away from my high school. The closest highway coursed Mack trucks through Inland Empire, connecting strip malls to shopping malls to food courts. The house was one of a hundred identical properties huddled atop a vista called Vantage Pointe Community. I detested this house. Unlike our other homes, it had no olive or lemon trees shedding big ripe fruit. It had no periwinkle paint. But it wasn’t mine to love anyway. My mother, an otherwise stoic woman, turned positively giddy when sliding her hand along the gleaming white countertops. She mooned over every inch of the two stories, adjacent garage, three beds, two baths, French doors, skylighting, high ceilings, and brand-new appliances (including a dishwasher we never once ran, but used instead as a fancy air-drying rack). Within a few months, I moved across the country for college and left her there in that sterile newness with my father.

He didn’t care much for the Normandy Way house, either, but my parents lived in relative peace there for a year, taking refuge in the hollow repetition of their daily routines. Since his gas-pumping days in downtown L.A., my father had passed a mechanic’s exam and opened up a transmission and smog-check shop, which managed to stay open despite his middling handiwork and unsteady clientele. But it turned out my father hadn’t been paying rent consistently on his business for ten years. My mother had cosigned the shop’s lease, so to settle my father’s outstanding back rent, she sold her house. Then she relocated to an entirely gated city in Riverside County to mourn in solitude. When my parents’ marriage ended for good, she sold her possessions, packed one suitcase, and moved to the Alaska Panhandle. 

Since then, she has relocated six more times. But to this day, I have never heard her speak of anyone or anything the way she speaks of that property on Normandy Way—wistfully, as if it were the yin to her yang in some star-crossed romance: “I. Loved. That. House.”

What Laurie feels, Umma hurts one hundred times more.

Home for me is a thirteen-by-nine room above a Brooklyn deli, in a building with a fake front door. My street boasts a high English name, and a few regal pin oaks, which decorate the comelier, northern stretch of the block where I do not reside. On more occasions than I care to admit, steps from my front door, I’ve found strangers urinating in broad daylight. If my apartment burned down, no one would be surprised. I expect the landlord to call any day now and say, “It’s over, Ms. Choi.” And I’ll need to pack up the things I use and the things I don’t use but can’t throw away. Then I’ll comb the internet for HWFs and EIKs and I will float through other peoples’ homes, perusing overpriced conversions and sunless railroad floor-throughs and lofts whose walls do not touch the ceiling, until some little serviceable gem emerges in my most frantic hour.

When I sleep, home is somewhere else, but perennially the same: that periwinkle one-story we lived in the longest. And when I conjure the place in dreams, the olive tree out front still sheds its big fruit, whose ripe flesh appears in Jackson Pollock splatters across our driveway. After waking from one such reverie, I Googled the house. Street views indicated that the current owners chopped down the tree. Its stump remains, as immutably planted there in the soil as the house is in my mind.

Lately, though, I have considered a different kind of tree—one that purportedly walks.

I had forgotten about this tree until a few months after the fire. When I first came upon it years ago, I was hiking in the jungle off Costa Rica’s Caribbean shoreline. The peculiar palm stood in our path on thirty or so raised roots, which were spindly but strong and straight, pitchforking out from its slender trunk like many supportive legs on an easel. It was an odd sight, as if some great god had wrangled the tree by its neck and yanked it heavenward, but only by a few feet, mysteriously rendering this plant forever on tiptoe. My guide pointed his machete to the tree and then gestured toward a bare patch of soil at the far end of our hiking path. He claimed that over a period of several decades, the tree had moved nearly forty feet from its original spot. 

Walking trees, or Socratea exorrhiza, are native to Central America, recognizable by their unique stilt or prop root system. They are exceptional to all other trees because they are capable of relocation. If a superior light source appears close by, the walking tree will grow new roots toward that sunnier direction, and the roots in the shaded area will die off, allowing for the tree to move, albeit very slowly, over time. In some cases, when a walking tree is damaged, for example if a foreign entity crashes upon its base, the walking tree will “right itself” by producing new roots, and the old, corrupted foundation will shrivel up completely. When walking trees see new light, they pioneer into that alternate bright expanse, because survival is their sole concern.

As a seaman, Pliny the Elder traveled perpetually, living as unmoored as the ships he sailed. When he said “Home is where the heart is,” he may have meant the opposite: that the heart is where the home is, our beating center of the world, as free and mobile as we need it to be. 

He also said: “From the end spring new beginnings.”

Holiday Inn tenderly ejected us from its accommodations after three days. Laurie’s friends Rose and Eric were out of town and graciously offered their nearby two-story abode for our decampment. We traded keys with the pet sitter, a trans man whose being wholly stunned my already discombobulated mother. Laurie took comfort in feeding the cat, Diego, and walking the dog, Cass, though not without heartache. My mother finally busied herself by washing a load of laundry. 

The detergent reminded her of jipdeuri, Korean housewarming parties. In the old days, new homeowners provided a decadent feast for their guests, who brought matches, candles, or embers from their own homes for gifts. The idea was for light and heat to brighten the new house so that prosperity and happiness could easily find them. When my sister had thrown her housewarming party, Laurie asked my mother what modern-day gifts Koreans bestow. “Box of laundry detergents,” my mother told her. “And toilet papers.” The detergent’s soapy suds signified the plentiful bubbling up of wealth and fortune, while toilet rolls suggested that potential problems would unravel smoothly. One of Laurie’s partygoers brought cleaning supplies, but most presented bottles of wine and hors d’oeuvres. As we folded the laundry together, I wondered if my mother believed in jipdeuri anymore.

Rose and Eric’s place had everything we needed, tucked into the drawers and shelves I intuitively reached for, the way I might have chosen to arrange them, too: Microplane here, cocktail shaker there, good olive oil stove-side. It’s fun, playing tourist in someone else’s home. Whenever I house-sit I feel this same satisfaction. It makes me think how wonderful it could be, walking into a place set up exactly to my liking, moving straight into that new existence, effortlessly leaving the old one behind. 

I helped the way I could, playing bartender, numbing us all with a round of margaritas. Meanwhile, my mother cooked our last meal of the trip. Laurie had requested a dish we loved to eat when we were children, which we hoped might inspire her waning appetite to return. That night, we sat around the dinner table, a custom we seldom enacted back in our California houses. Laurie scraped her bowl clean and asked for seconds. My mother seemed pleased in her own aloof way, and then took to admiring Rose’s place mats.

I was never able to see my sister’s apartment before it burned. The ATF had asked her to submit a detailed layout of her home, so she gave me a tour using a drawing. On a piece of white paper, she resurrected every corner and inch of the place with meticulous detail. She pointed out where the dinette set went, the dimensions of the master and guest bedrooms, where Smalls slept in his crate, and how the runner rug lined the hallway, which had all been beautifully rendered, like some tribute, or final goodbye. The place remains sealed in time—beside my parents’ waterfront cabin in Discovery Bay (1980), or the wooden house on Woodruff Lane shaded by two enormous lemon trees (1986)—the youngest specter in the vault of all our long-lost homes.

After I returned from DC, the topic of the fire came up in casual conversation, as it does still from time to time. Most people tend to offer condolences, but Matthew, an acquaintance at the table, posited a new stance: Perhaps losing everything might be a liberating experience. Suddenly released from material concerns, one could start over again, clean slate, and how often does that happen, anyway? His date apologized, explaining that Matthew was a philosophy Ph.D. candidate. Like many philosophers before him, he often elected to say insensitive things for the sake of thought experiments. The only snag with Matthew’s take was that my sister did not have the luxury of choice. Someone else longed to be freed of this material world, which in turn forced Laurie to lose everything, too.

The thing about ontological quandaries is that they don’t seem to consider emotional consequences. I suppose it might be easier to conceptualize trauma, rather than to reckon with that beastly grief head-on, all white knuckles and bone-aching sorrow. But perhaps there, in the midst of her oblivion, Laurie could transcend to some unsayable truth, like Matthew suggested. This is what Socrates strived for with his disciples, a state of mind known as aporia. He challenged and probed, revealing the paradoxes in everyone’s assumptions, until there were no more justifications or answers, until what resulted was a kind of intellectual annihilation. And that was the gateway to true knowledge.

Heidegger posed a similar theory, involving the more palpable image of a forest clearing. The German philosopher wrote of a process called lichtung. From the dense, enshrouded forest, we reach an opening in the trees. The unencumbered space allows light to shine through, ushering in arresting clarity. To Heidegger, we can see the light only as it exists in contrast to the darkness of the forest, the two intrinsically linked, dark and light, loss and gain. 

So far, Laurie’s loss has yet to inspire a sudden unburdening or lightness. She continues to pay a mortgage on the decaying lot she once called home. Nearly every day, she mourns the passing of her pets, whose remains could not be recovered for a proper burial. For now, she is back at work, performing the rote yet gratifying duties of a “government bureaucrat,” the details of which I’ve never managed to understand. I replaced the ravioli maker she lost in the fire. She cooks with her boyfriend often, wine-braised short ribs or molé enchiladas, for her appetite has returned with a vengeance. They live together in his apartment until the wreckage is cleared, floors are erected, doors hinged, accent walls painted—until it is back to how it was, although it may never be quite the same again. 

Reconstructing one’s entire tactile world is a messy business. My mother knows this. Like a walking tree, she is ever drifting toward new light. Nowadays, she bandies about the idea of living in a solar-powered van. Inside, she could own a lofted bed with a tiny lounging area beneath. The back doors could open to a lake or a state park as her living room. In the Miami apartment where she currently resides, very few signifiers from my childhood homes remain. There is the painting of a beach scene, with the distant heads of sunbathers stippled in peachy specks and dots. And my threadbare baby blanket, which she keeps folded into a perfect square in the cupboard. She might find a place for these things in the van, or not. My mother says she doesn’t need much anymore, just food, water, and her daughters. Everything else: “They just a worldly pojession.”

She visited Costa Rica, too, years before I did, on one of many jet-set vacations she took before heading to Alaska. At the time, she had lost her house, her marriage, and every other touchstone of her being. But then one day she stood in the sun, at the foot of an active volcano. The next, she river-rafted along choppy waters with a handful of strangers, hooting and hollering, thrilled to be alive. She made a point to say how she washed her underwear every night, and dried them in the jungle air. She had only packed two pairs for a ten-day trip, but this was her new, resourceful way to never be without clean underwear. 

She even jumped off a cliff. My mother is terrified of heights. She told me how she waited at the giant rock’s edge, teeth chattering, knees quaking. Her fellow travelers far out in the depths below cheered her on. She couldn’t climb all the way back down. There was only one choice. So she screamed her daughters’ names and then barreled off, leaping feather-light into the unknown. 


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Elsie Deem's picture
Elsie Deem · 8 years ago

Jen Choi is a remarkable writer, whose prose reach deep into the soul and then hold up a mirror. Home is nothing less than the bond that connects these three endearing women.  May we all reside so grandly! 


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