The phone rang and Maxine answered, dutifully. There was a pause on the other end of the line, a measured silence. Then a familiar, sour voice: “Why didn’t you pick up?”
“I was in the subway, Mom,” Maxine said, and it was the truth.
“No, you weren’t, and when were you going to call your grandfather?”
The statement and question came in such close proximity that Maxine couldn’t reasonably backtrack and address her subway ride without ignoring a more serious matter at hand. Maxine was thirty-three years old and one thousand and ninety-eight miles away from the other end of the line, yet her mother could still throw her off balance as easily as in the days that their lives and worlds and private spaces coincided completely.
“I did call, Mom.”
“That’s not what he said.”
“Do you want me to tell you what happened?”
“I called the hospital and they forwarded me to his room. ‘Hi, Grandpa, how are you feeling?’ I said. ‘Who is this?’ he said. ‘It’s Maxine,’ I said. ‘You have to talk to the company,’ he said. ‘The hospital?’ I asked. He said, ‘I can’t talk to you, you have to talk to the company.’ I asked him if we were suing somebody, and what exactly did he mean by–”
“We’re not suing anybody, Maxine. Why would you bring that up to him, it would only agitate––I can’t believe that you would–”
“I didn’t know. He kept talking about the company, saying I had to talk to the company, and––”
“You must have misheard him. He was feeling better when I spoke with him, and––wait… you didn’t call at all, did you?”
“You’d fabricate a conversation just to save face… and the sick thing is that it’s not a stretch to believe it, that you’d actually do it…”
Her mother continued to speak, but Maxine tuned her out. Her attention shifted to two elderly men in black folding chairs. A plywood board stretched across their laps, serving as a table. The men scowled, aggressively slamming dominoes against the plank. As each domino was laid, both men winced at the force of pressure applied to their legs, yet they continued with increasing belligerence.
It was easy for Maxine to ignore her mother, now that she had reached the monologue portion of the conversation. There was a residual degree of fear, however, which would not allow Maxine to hang up or even to hold the phone away from her ear. Suddenly, the voice intruded with a barb about her not being home to visit her grandfather in the hospital––a barb which penetrated the filter primarily because it was true.
Why are those boys standing like that, Maxine wondered, her attention diverted by a tableau on the next block. Four boys stood on each corner of an otherwise empty intersection as if they were standing guard. She felt a tingling sensation, then a piercing voice behind her announced Eyyy––chk-chk-chk-chk, the noise one would make while beckoning a squirrel toward a handful of cashews. Maxine increased the rate and size of her stride; she felt the flush and primitive glow of danger, yet still she clasped her phone and held the running stream of disparagements firmly to her ear. Then–
* * *
Maxine awoke in a gutter, lying prone against pigeon-shit speckled macadam. She rolled onto her back, eyeballs throbbing in their sockets. Her phone and bag were missing; all of her pockets had been turned inside out, even one on her blazer which had been sewn shut since she’d bought it. Pulling herself up by raw pink sandpapered palms, she found herself surrounded by black lumps of chewing gum, pounded across the decades into indiscernible wads by thousands of dirty feet. A yard to her right, she spied a pile of discarded straws and packets of Duck Sauce. Does anyone actually use duck sauce, she wondered, and it was the first thought since being mugged that she had been able to articulate with any degree of coherence. This struck her as funny, and she laughed. It was a laugh of desperation and exhilaration, understood only by those who believe they have lost everything––life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness––in a mere instant. This laugh regularly echoes throughout Off-Track Betting parlors, county courthouses, hospitals, and other havens of long odds and wretched souls. It was the first time Maxine had heard such a laugh, and its impact was all the more arresting because it had originated within her own lungs.
Maxine found her feet and stood erect, or nearly so––a crick in her neck wouldbn’t cooperate with the rest of her spine. Across the street, a man dragged an enormous tube television along the sidewalk by its power cord. Metal scraped concrete, and concrete scraped metal. It was worse than nails on a chalkboard.
She limped toward an elevated subway station in search of authority. There was no one in sight, and the ticket window was closed. Gum wrappers, expired Metrocards, and shredded newspapers were jammed in the window’s opening, and a handwritten, duct-taped sign proclaimed “No Service.” Some joker had written beneath it, “EVER.” Maxine chuckled to herself and conveyed her weary limbs homeward. Perhaps the superintendent would be around to let her in.
One block from her building, Maxine detected a delightful pile of garbage lying on the sidewalk. She was able to conclude from a distance that the pile was “delightful” by virtue of its color scheme: it was overwhelmingly pastel. As she approached, a handful of long-forgotten sensations began to unearth themselves from the vault of memory, as if the intervening decades and all of their responsibilities and complexities had simply ceased to exist. She looked fondly upon the treasures: there was a rusty, crinkled can of “Coke II,” a Lisa Frank trapper keeper, a manhandled Pound Puppy, a collection of scented erasers shaped like hearts, a glittery tube of toothpaste with a cap shaped like a star, a cracked View-Master, a ratty stuffed animal named “Zugly”; and a stack of dog-eared VHS tapes. No Proustian madeleines, these––yet to Maxine they still packed quite a punch. One videocassette tape in particular drew her eye: “PAST LIVES,” it said in a neon yellow lightning across a background of crisscrossing pink and blue lasers. Beneath the title was a rather evocative tableau. A black woman dressed as Marie Antoinette and a white man dressed as Genghis Khan clinked crystal goblet with earthenware mug while an Asian Abe Lincoln and a Latino Aristotle looked on. More Halloween than Hollywood, the costumes nonetheless succeeded in immediately capturing the interest of the beholder.
Maxine tucked the videocassette beneath her arm and left, happy to think of anything besides canceling credit cards and bank accounts and an afternoon on line at the DMV.
Dragging herself to her front stoop, Maxine rang the superintendent’s bell and hoped for the best. The tall, sad-eyed man known to her only as “The Super” shuffled toward the door, unlatched it, and adjusted the moth-eaten Ivy cap that he always, inexplicably, wore backwards. The Super had a habit of commandeering even the briefest and most superficial of social interactions and transforming them into lengthy, one-sided rants about whatever minor misfortune had befallen him earlier that day––or, if he was more recently put out, whatever injustice had reared its head in the last twenty minutes. Today’s disaster had involved an unmanageable tangle in the garden hose which had slowed the process of vaporizing dog feces from the sidewalk. Maxine was, as usual, unable to get a word in edgewise. These conversations demanded so very little of her; she merely had to smile, nod, and occasionally mutter a “that’s just terrible” in order to maintain general civility.
He reached his climax in a detour about having to work on Saturday mornings, and petered into nothingness at the seven or eight minute mark, as was customary. Having ejected all indignation from his body, Maxine knew that the Super would be a blank slate for the next few seconds, so she took advantage of the brief window: requesting, receiving, and departing with a spare key just moments before a fresh grievance about floor-scuffage could seethe to the surface. As such, the burden of listening to said grievance was foisted instead upon the Super’s pet turtle “Morris” while Maxine limped up the stairs. It must be noted that there was nothing malicious in the Super’s failure to notice Maxine’s disheveled state and varied lacerations; he was simply inattentive to any detail that did not directly concern himself.
By the time she’d reached the fourth floor, Maxine had forgotten all about phoning the police or canceling her cards; she wanted nothing more than to pop the cassette into her VCR. Her interest had grown exponentially with each step, and she shook the box in time with her footsteps, a maraca of magnetic tape and plastic casing. Even as she unlocked her front door, her fingers drummed steadily across the cardboard sleeve, alive with a wild sense of locomotion that could not be suppressed. She made a beeline for her television and inserted the tape. Servo-motors drew the cassette inside, and as the device whirred and calibrated, a glassy calm washed over Maxine. Her thumb pressed “Play,” and–
* * *
Waves of distortion swept across the screen and a blast of static reverberated through the speakers. Maxine thumbed the tracking button, and her VCR chittered like a cicada. She wiggled the cables and struck the side of her television, but it was no use: it was a dead tape, a degaussed void. She looked on in despair at the flickering points of light and darkness and her eyes drifted, crossed, and lost focus.
Within the static, there emerged the faintest outline of a familiar warning: “FBI WARNING: THIS VIDEOCASSETTE IS FOR PRIVATE HOME VIEWING ONLY. IT IS NOT LICENSED FOR ANY OTHER USE…” Maxine’s chest swelled, the interference slackened, and the screen washed into a white-out. To her, it was as sparklingly clear as a Crystal Pepsi.
Out of the white light, there erupted sounds of synthesized keyboard and slap bass. A flash, like a burst of lightning, and then the main title: “PAST LIVES.” A man with a spiked mullet, clad in a checkerboard tailcoat and riffing on a keytar, spun into the frame on one heel, and the camera tracked back to reveal an audience of children watching the performance––not in person, but on two dozen television screens at a discount electronics store. The view tilted up to reveal the pipes of a massive organ, and the music shifted to a Bach fugue. The camera descended, and the same children were held rapt by the music, now seated at pews in a cathedral. Panning to the right, the keytar player appeared once more, now in a powdered wig, wildly banging on a harpsichord. Fluttering down and disorienting the viewer, the camera spun to reveal the same children; only now some of them were children of noblemen, and some were servants. All were mesmerized by the musician’s performance. Tracking back, the object of their attention transformed into a lute-playing troubadour in the Middle Ages, skipping along a grassy path. The children followed him like the Pied Piper, a few of them, somewhat disconcertingly, crawling on all fours. The image darkened and flickered, transforming into an ancient campfire. The same musician, spiked mullet and all, was now a cave man and the children his clan, bewitched by his skill as he chanted in a foreign tongue and beat sticks against each other. The children smacked their own foreheads and slapped their bare thighs, working themselves into a frenzy of rhythm and bruises. The spectacle roared to a crescendo and faded out. Maxine was riveted.
“Hi, there! I’m Cindy! Hello!” It was the black Marie Antoinette in full regalia, and she was addressing the viewer. Her eyes glowed with a lustrous placidity, and Maxine’s first reaction was one of aversion, though she was unable to look away. Cindy compelled her.
“This is a program about looking! It’s about looking over, looking past, looking beyond. It’s about looking farther than you’ve ever looked before! Sometimes it might be a little hard to understand––but it’s meant to be watched again and again, by yourself, or with a grown-up! So pay attention!”
The video cut to a freckled boy with coke-bottle lenses, crouching amid shrubbery and craning his neck. “Meet Jimmy!” Cindy said. “Jimmy’s been getting into trouble lately. He’s been peeping, which is a very bad thing to do!” On cue, Jimmy fell out of the bushes, and an angry woman wearing only a towel pulled her drapes shut. “Jimmy based his life on the principle that seeing a woman without her clothes on was a thing of significance. He got into trouble with his parents, with his school––even the local constable had to give him a talking-to. But then one day, Jimmy noticed something. He’d stare at a fully clothed woman on the street, in a bus, at his school. He’d stare at her bare neck, and he’d look and look until he could look beyond it. Suddenly, he’d see the woman without any clothes on, only she was out of focus. Then he’d look at her straight-on, and she’d be clothed again. It was no trick of light; Jimmy’d stumbled upon something big––only he didn’t know its true purpose. But he did notice that it needed a little bit of flesh for it to work––a woman in a turtleneck posed an insurmountable challenge. That was in 1958. Jimmy was naughty then, but he soon learned discipline.
“In 1970, Jimmy trained with the special forces of the United States army!” Helicopters hovered over the jungle, alight with the muzzle flashes of automatic weaponry. “Jimmy was obliged to learn defensive driving in order to complete his education. Specifically, he learned the PIT maneuver, the ‘Precision Immobilization Technique.’” The screen cut to two jeeps, driving down a highway at top speed. Suddenly, one veered into the other and rammed it, but instead of wrecking, the jeep that was struck safely spun out, and the aggressor seemingly drove straight through, unharmed. “But Jimmy kept losing control, no matter how precisely he rammed the target vehicle. The instructors let him in on a little secret. They told him not to look at the target vehicle, but through it. They said, ‘Look at the road where you want to go, not at the obstacles in your way.’ Jimmy followed their advice, and soon he was performing the maneuver better than his instructors! Jimmy couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about the secret to everything lying in looking beyond…
“In 1978, after three tours of duty, two Bronze stars, and a Purple Heart, Jimmy was living in New York City, working in an office on the 45th floor, overlooking Central Park. Jimmy didn’t like his job very much.” The video cut to a gaunt, bored-looking man, slouched behind a desk and gazing emptily out of an enormous plate glass window.
“One day, Jimmy was staring at the Park, thinking about something else entirely when he saw, quite suddenly, a vision which was to change the very course of his life. Without realizing it, he had looked beyond the Park. What the Park represented––that tiny bit of truth, that small patch of exposed skin, that bit of unobstructed road up ahead––allowed the vision to take place. And here’s what he saw…”
The film switched to cel animation to illustrate. “He saw Manhattan Island, some two thousand years ago––all trees and green and placid waters. And he didn’t imagine this, no––he was able to receive this tangible, transformative vision through a meditative state fused with a nugget of pure truth, and that nugget of truth was the small bit of Manhattan that had remained unchanged––the greenery of Central Park.
“Jimmy quit his job the next day, and devoted the remainder of his life to the investigation of this method which reached beyond all scientific understanding. Jimmy himself, some years later, would name this method the ‘Bygone Reverie.’” The screen faded to black.
When it faded in on an image, it was one of a man strolling amid the leafy passageways of a finely-trimmed hedge maze. The man wore a black Nehru jacket, cross-stitched with lightning bolts. His features were dark, his look severe. He wrinkled his nose, adjusted his browline eyeglasses, and addressed the camera.
“Hi there, I’m James Delacroix. You’ve just heard my story. And I’m very glad to meet you.” He pointed at the viewer. “You’re probably watching this at home. Stretched out on the carpet. Lying back in an easy chair. Sitting on the sofa. But really, you’re in one of these.” James raised his arms and gestured with dismay at his surroundings. “A maze. You’re trapped and don’t even know it. You keep taking turn after aimless turn, and still you find yourself back in the place where you began. You think this is acceptable. You think this is normal, because this is the way that it’s always been done. You’re as immature as I used to be; as a boy, in the army, or at the office. What you don’t realize is that there are other paths at your disposal. It doesn’t have to be so senseless.” James pulled on a lever-shaped branch, ducked down, and a entire hedge descended, allowing him access to a completely different maze, a beautiful tangle of marble and mirrors that could rival the halls of Versailles. Maxine picked up the box and checked the copyright date. 1983. She pursed her lips, impressed. It predated Labyrinth.
“And how do I escape? How can I be like James? The answer is simpler than you think. It lies in wait, affixed to your bathroom wall, housed in a clamshell in your makeup bag, shimmering on the surface of still waters, reflected across the finished glass in your windowpanes. The answer is you. Your soul is the nugget of truth that remains, eternal through the ages. It peers through your eyes, truth be told; and if you want to catch a glimpse of it, I can show you how…” James turned and faced his own reflection in a mirror. The camera zoomed on his eyes, and they gleamed back from unfathomable depths.
Maxine shifted restlessly on the sofa. She looked around to see if there was a mirror within reach, just for the hell of it, but there wasn’t.
“And now,” explained James, “I’ll show you how to embark upon a Bygone Reverie…”
James ducked into a small, Art Deco apartment bathroom, carrying a lit candelabra. He extinguished all light, save for the candles, and looked intently into the elaborate, wall-mounted mirror.
“I want you to look into yourself, but at the same time, beyond this.” He pinched his own cheek, the crude flesh. He held the candelabra beneath his face and looked deeply into the mirror, into the eyes of the man he found there. He shivered, as if from a sudden chill and turned to the camera.
“I’ll leave that final mystery to you… but, there is one last secret to the Bygone Reverie. This may sound silly to you now, but you must envision your eyes as if they are surrounded by hair from another time.”
Maxine chuckled, thinking of the transforming 80s rocker from the opening montage.
“Cindy can show you the rest…” James teased, “but for now… I have some traveling to do.”
The video cut to a black background with the silhouettes of historical hairstyles projected upon it, alternating in shades of neon green, pink, and orange. Cindy narrated and commented on the styles and the periods from when they had originated. There were tousled, unkempt mops from the Bronze Age, queues from Nurhaci’s Manchuria, luxurious curls from the court of Louis XV, bouncy bobs from the Roaring Twenties, a stately chonmage from Tokugawa Japan, powdered wigs, Renaissance headpieces, mutton chops, Greek chignons, gold-powdered coiffures… As the list continued, Maxine grew quite antsy, eager to try out the Reverie for herself. She left the video running and grabbed a lighter and dollar-store votive candle. While she was gone, the video must have ended––for upon her return, the screen displayed only bristling static. She turned off the television. The lesson was over.
Lighting the candle, Maxine felt a rumbling from her own past, like the steady turn of an enormous key. An elementary school computer lab. Green text on a black screen. The scent of pencil shavings and discount ketchup. The murmuring of children in distant hallways. The triteness of a poster’s well meaning slogan… “Hang in there!”
When she was seven, Maxine had secretly typed out a number of little stories on an Apple IIe, each one obsessing upon the subject of running away from home. It had felt dangerous to type out those words; to see them finally staring back at her, her daydreams suddenly made flesh, glowing in ominous green. She printed each of them out, read them exactly once, and destroyed them. Her mother could never know, even now. Because she never saved them, each new tale would be basically the same as the last, describing that ecstatic moment of unknown pleasure––escape!
Each story began with her mother storming off after wronging her in some monumental fashion (the precise details of which were never described as a fail-safe in case of discovery). Maxine’s “character” would find herself locked inside a home that wasn’t quite her own. It had hardwood floors, tall doors with brass doorknobs and yawning keyholes, well-groomed potted plants, elegant bookshelves, and busts of the noble Greeks and Romans. It was certainly not a crumbling split-level with ratty carpets, duct-taped overhead fluorescents, and narrow windows covered year-round in plastic tablecloths colored goose-shit green––there was a dignity to this imagined home, but even here the beauty was spoiled by the pitiless echoes of her mother’s fury.
Maxine would then grab a few personal items for the road––there was always an odd satisfaction to be had in picking out the precise handful of objects she’d bring along–– usually some combination of her favorite stuffed animal, a notebook, a deck of cards, a fossilized trilobite she’d found in her backyard, her spelling bee trophy, a bracelet that belonged to her grandmother, cheese and crackers, or an apple. She’d tie them inside her favorite Treehouse Trolls nightgown and affix them to a broom handle, like a drifter in a cartoon from the 1930s. She’d advance to the bathroom, fully without fear, clambering atop the toilet and surmounting the marble countertop. Standing above the sink, she’d tilt open the top-most window pane––the only one in the entire house her mother had forgotten to bolt shut. She’d throw her sack out the window, shimmy her tiny body between glass and the frame, and land on the dewy grass with a thump. The sun was rising in the east, and she darted toward it, across the backyard, over the train tracks, and into the uncharted woods beyond. This was where the stories would end. There was little consideration for what would happen next; the thrill was in the escape. Maxine kept her stories a secret from everyone, even her supposed friends. When she wrote them and read them, and years later, even now, when she thought about them, she felt as if she was the only person in the entire world, and it was wonderful.
Maxine looked into the mirror, through the looking glass. She imagined her face framed by a gold-flecked hair and pulled back into a braided knot. What had Cindy called it, a Greek chignon? Maxine couldn’t remember much about Ancient Greece otherwise (Mount Olympus? The Parthenon?), so she focused her full attention on visualizing the hairstyle. She stared for twenty, thirty, forty minutes, the passage of time punctuated only by the occasional fluttering of her eyelids. Maxine’s blinking seemed unnaturally loud; her eyelashes clashing in loud staccato bursts which threatened to break her concentration. The saliva dried in her mouth, and sweat glistened on her temples. Her perspiration mixed with a few droplets of blood––one of her scratches had reopened under the strain. She heard faintly the sound of waves slapping against a dock. Her eyes nearly crossed. She looked beyond. Cold, inky, brackish waters began to blossom outward from the blackest points of her pupils and onto the hazel boundaries of her irises. The dark waters billowed into the far end of a tube. No, it was a cavern. It was becoming clearer. A vast radiance, a vast darkness, and the gulf between. She could taste the brine. The waves slapped gently. A tremendous brightness. Then the cloudy water turned quite translucent––bright and blue and lovely, and she was there, she was really there, here and now, here and now, escape!–
* * *
Stooping to find the matching key on his jumbled ring, the Super unlocked the door and invited the two officers into the apartment.
“Did you notice anything unusual about her behavior that night?” asked Officer Morrison.
“Nothing,” replied the Super. “Nothing at all. She was cheerful. She was interested in my day, like always. Then she asked for the spare key. I can’t remember why. It was a few weeks ago.” The Super adjusted his hat, and the Officers shared a surreptitious glance which posed the question, “Why does this foolish man wear this foolish hat––backwards?” Officer Martin stepped forward.
“Can you tell us anything about her? The sorts of hours she kept, any visitors? …Boyfriends?”
“She was a sweet girl. Kept to herself. She was always very interested in what sorts of things I was up to, around the building.”
“Uh-huh,” said Officer Morrison.
“Listen,” said Officer Martin, “people don’t vanish into thin air. I’m sure you’ve heard something.”
“I showed you gentlemen the tape. She came upstairs and didn’t come down.”
“What about the fire escape?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know. If you had any idea what sort of week I’ve had…”
Officer Martin sighed. “We can take it from here. Wait outside.”
“Sure,” said the Super, and he shuffled off.
Officer Martin stomped into the living room, and the floorboards groaned.
“Anything interesting over there?”
“An old video box. It’s empty.” He turned the box in his hands and read it. “Past Lives.”
“Turn on the player. Let’s see what it is.”
Officer Martin fiddled with the VCR. “It’s already in here.” As he bent over, his nightstick knocked a wine glass off of the table, and it shattered on the floor.
The VCR whirred and calibrated itself. It said “Stop,” then it said “Play.”
“It’s just snow. What’s it called? Snowy fuzz. There’s nothing on this tape.” Officer Martin fast-forwarded and rewound. “It’s blank. Erased, or something.”
“No, it’s not––I just saw something.”
“It’s gone. It was a shape. Like, what was it, those books, puzzle books with the postcards from the 90s? You squint and see something…?”
“Yeah, the Magic Eye. It looked sorta like that Magic Eye shit.”
“Where? Should I go back?”
“Yeah, go back just a little. Yeah, right there. It’s the shape of Manhattan! Magic eye shit, man!”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
“No, I’m not. That’s trippy.”
“It doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on the case.”
* * *
She dreamt that she had wasted her years, that she had allowed them to slip away, senselessly, and without meaning. She had not amassed friends or relations or knowledge or poetry––or even possessions, the simplest accumulation of all. Her only belongings were debts and obligations; the baggage and garbage that had been foisted upon her by others, always others, whom she had feared and despised. She could recall not a single worthwhile lesson from her years of schooling, nor could she make any constructive observations about the fundamental character of human beings. In thirty-three years, she had learned nothing.
She awoke, overcome by melancholy and relief. It had only been a dream, but what a sad, terrible, and pitiful vision! She stood, and her bare feet wandered across wet, velvety sands and made their way onto a fine gravel path. She knelt down, grabbed two handfuls of pebbles with her fists, and then let the smooth stones trickle out, listening carefully as they rattled against one another like marbles. It occurred to her that she could not remember her own name, but she was filled with the confidence that this knowledge would return in time. She fluttered her eyelids. They were quiet now. She stood and surveyed the coast. She could glimpse pale green mountains rising in the distance, just beyond a low cloud of mist and the crystal line of the shore. On the far side of the cove was a simple, sun-dried brick cottage which she knew was her home. Yes, the dream was long and dark and monstrous, but now she had returned. Ah, to be alone, to be, finally, alone! She was reminded vaguely of a story she had once read, long, long ago (or had she written it?), a story that began with a little girl’s escape into a land of immeasurable wonder. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember what had happened to the girl after her escape.
An ocean breeze ruffled her robes, and a cicada in the bush beside her began to chirp, noisily. She was about to remark to herself that it sounded almost exactly like her old something-or-other, but the thread of the idea unraveled before it could go any further. It didn’t matter; whatever it was, it had nothing to do with the here and now. She reoriented herself, took a deep breath, and walked onward, undaunted.
Sean Gill is a writer and filmmaker who has studied with Werner Herzog and Juan Luis Buñuel, documented public defenders for National Geographic, and was a writer-in-residence at the Bowery Poetry Club from 2011-2012. He won the 2016 Sonora Review Fiction Prize, and other recent stories have been published or are forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Word Riot, Spark: A Creative Anthology, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, and Akashic Books.
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Photo by Tracy Thomas