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romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 33

Same restaurant, same table, very different nerves. I was waiting for Chris, the same as I had what felt like forever ago. Last time, however, I was nervous with excitement and anticipation. I had been so looking forward to talking to him and getting to know him again.

This particular meeting would be a very different situation.

I wasn’t sure if Chris knew what was coming. I didn’t know how he was going to react. Or how I was going to react, for that matter. Jamie was my future, I was absolutely certain about that, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to break my own heart.

My stomach was in knots and the number of times I contemplated checking the size of the window in the bathroom – just in case – was astronomical. With a snort I realized I hadn’t tried to run away for quite a while. A little personal growth, perhaps?

Yeah, doubtful.

Chris’s pickup pulled in and I seriously thought I was going to throw up. Watching him get out of the truck and stand there, still holding the handle, told me all I needed to know. It seemed he had a pretty good idea why we were here. He stared at his feet, spinning his keys around the middle finger of one hand, gripping the car door like it was his bathroom escape route. After an eternity, he pocketed his keys, scrubbed a hand over his hair and walked into the restaurant.

I stood and tried to smile as he approached. It must have been a frightening expression that was less inviting than it was horror story because his feet stuttered and I thought he was going to turn around. Instead, he grinned at me without the smile reaching his eyes. He pulled me in for a hug and kissed my cheek, exactly the way he had at our first meeting and my stomach dropped. This was going to suck.

“You look great, Lexi,” he said, holding my chair out for me before taking his own seat. He fiddled with his silverware and only glanced up now and then without making any kind of eye contact. “Do you want to actually order food, or just rip the bandage off?”

I grimaced. “Ouch.”

He shrugged and locked eyes with me. “I can’t say I wasn’t expecting this at some point. Even when we were together you weren’t really with me.”

The tears started to well up and I shook my head. “Chris, you don’t deserve this. I am a horrible human being and I am so, so sorry.”

Grabbing my hand across the table, he leaned forward. “I’m not. Not for one second.” He twined his fingers through mine and lifted our hands to kiss my knuckles. “Lexi, this time with you has been amazing. It’s nothing I was looking for, but something I see now that I really needed. Did you know that I hadn’t been on a date in a year before you called me?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t know that. But it’s got to be hard to meet people, much less go on dates, when you’ve got a kid.”

Before I had even finished my thought, Chris was shaking his head. “It wasn’t that at all. I’m not sure I know what it truly was, but I kind of think it was fear.” Rubbing his thumb over my knuckles, he stared at our joined hands. As though he’d been burned, though, he released my hand and sat back, crossing his arms. It felt terrible, like the closeness between us had been a dream.

“What could you possibly be afraid of that would keep you from dating? I don’t know why the ladies aren’t falling all over themselves to get to you! You’re sweet. You’re funny, and adorable. You’re an amazing father and a devoted and protective friend. What are you afraid of?”

He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “I’m not sure if I can explain it. After since Angie and I split up, I’ve done nothing but work, sleep, and spend time with my son. Period. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I know all the people in my life and they know everything about me and love me anyway. The idea of getting to know someone again – of putting myself out there to be accepted or rejected – makes me want to barf.”

The waiter appeared out of nowhere and Chris was about to wave him away when I cleared my throat. “Actually, can we get some chips and queso and a couple of menus, please?” Chris raised his eyebrows at me and I grinned. “What? I’m hungry.”

He laughed at me and sat back in his seat, looking relaxed for the first time that night. “Yeah, okay, so am I. I’ve been too nervous all day to eat anything. I knew why you asked me here but I was still hoping I was wrong.”

“Chris…” But he held up a hand and leaned in.

“No, it’s fine. On the drive here I really thought about it. I said I was scared to let anyone else in, to open myself up again. But this time with you…well, it’s given me some faith in myself again.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but I’m not entirely sure what I did.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, chewing his lip. “How do I explain it? I guess that spending time with you made me realize how much I miss having someone in my life who looks at me the way you did. I want to have someone I can be number one for, a best friend and partner in crime. It’s not you, unfortunately, but I know that I’m ready to look for her. So I suppose I should be thanking you.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean you’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“For dragging you into my psychotic break? For leading you to believe that we had a future?” I could feel the tears threatening again. “Don’t you think I was unfair to you, maybe even using you?”

“Were you?”

“No! I don’t know, maybe.” I sniffled and stared at my hands in my lap.

“Can you use the willing? No one got hurt here.” He leaned forward and lifted my chin. “Besides, Lexi, I was happy to be your tool.”

We burst into laughter and when our eyes met, I knew we would be okay.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 31

The color drained from Jamie’s face which was not a good sign. He launched out of his seat and started pacing, rubbing his chin, one hand on his hip. I wasn’t hopeful that I was going to like what I was about to hear.

He finally stopped and faced me. “Okay, you’re right. You definitely deserve an explanation.”

“The truth, Jamie. I deserve the truth,” I corrected. “Please don’t try to spare my feelings. I need to know what’s happening between you two, how things started, and what it all means for the future – for our future.”

My stomach was knotted and my throat was tight. Anxiety wrapped itself around me as I imagined all the things he might say: He and Kelly had been sleeping together for years, or he was really in love with her and didn’t know how to call it off, or that it was Kelly and always Kelly that he’d wanted to be with and only had the opportunity once I’d postponed the wedding.

I was ready for anything he had to say.

“Kelly’s dating my brother.”

Except for that.

“What? Chad? Kelly’s dating Chad?” When he nodded, I rubbed my forehead. “How did I not know that?”

He threw his hands in the air. “You’ve been a little self-absorbed recently, Lex. They’ve been seeing each other for a couple months now. I probably see Kelly more often than you do, these days.”

I felt sick. While hearing that Jamie and Kelly were romantically involved would have been painful, knowing that I had failed my best friend was like a knife to the gut. Throw in the fact that I had suspected the two people I loved most were sneaking around behind my back and I would have been happy to be swallowed by the earth at that exact moment.

“With everything that’s been going on in your life, she’s been missing you, just like I have. She and Chad started inviting me over for dinners or along to baseball games or farmers markets.” He raked his fingers through his hair then spread both hands out in front of him. “We felt like we had both lost you and no one but the two of us could understand how we were feeling. She and Chad are crazy about each other but she and I have a connection they never will: you.”

Jamie knelt in front of me and took my hands in his. “Alexis, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be an asshole here. But you haven’t really been present. Kelly has been trying to support you, to be there for you. She doesn’t feel right talking about her relationship with Chad when you’re confused and hurting.”

There was no way I could look at Jamie so I stared at our hands in my lap. When the first tear plopped into my lap, he cupped my cheek and swiped the next one away with his thumb. That small gesture of kindness pushed my guilt over the edge and I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. He tried to wrap his arms around me but I stood and pushed roughly past him.

“How can you try to comfort me? I deserve to feel every ounce of guilt and pain. I’m so ashamed. How could I be so selfish?” I finally looked up at Jamie to find concern lining his face as he watched me. “And you…” I gulped. “I don’t understand how you’re still here, how you haven’t washed your hands of this whole nightmare!”

He frowned and flew across the room to me, grasping my upper arms and pulling me close. “How can you even say that? For being so smart, you really can be stupid sometimes, Alexis!”

Releasing his grip, he pulled me into his arms, the rough stubble of his chin pressed against my cheek. His voice was soft and full of pain when he said, “I am here – and I will always be here – because I love you, Alexis. My world was dark and cold before I met you. I had no direction, no joy in my life before you.”

I clung to him, bunching his shirt in my fists and trying to press myself closer to him. But he pulled back and smoothed my curls from my forehead, framing my face in both hands. A small smile curved his lips.

“I’ve never told you this…I’ve never told anyone this, not even Chad. But I was in a very dark place the night we met. I felt helpless, hopeless, floundering in an ocean of despair and going under quickly.”

My eyes wide, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Oh, Jamie.” He waved me off.

“I hadn’t made a plan, I wasn’t committed to doing anything, but I sure didn’t see any future for myself. Until you. I saw that smile, got a glimpsse of your enormous humor and heart, and for the first time in a long time I saw beauty in the world. That night I met you, at the karaoke bar, was the night my life truly started.”

Searching his face, it was like I was seeing him – really seeing him – for the first time. “I had no idea. Jamie, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged. “It wasn’t important. That wasn’t me anymore. Everything had changed and I didn’t want my past to be part of our future.”

“I can’t believe what I’ve put you through,” I murmured, pressing my face into his shoulder to hide the fresh wave of shame trying to drown me. “If I had known…”

Extracting himself from my embrace, he held me at arms’ length and cocked his head. “I didn’t tell you that to make you feel bad or obligated. That’s the last thing I want! I’d never want you to be with me because you felt like you had to be.” He dropped his hands and took a step backwards. “Please don’t think I’m going to backslide or fall apart if you decide not to be with me. It will hurt, a lot, but that’s kind of what I’m trying to tell you. The world is a different place to me now. Knowing you, loving you, has shown me there is endless possibility and hope all around us. You saved my life, even if you choose not to be in it anymore.”

Words wouldn’t come to me. I had never heard anything so heartfelt and honest in my life. In the years we’d been together we’d shared nearly everything and I had always felt closer to Jamie than to anyone else. But the raw emotion in his words made me realize there was still so much more to learn, so much I wanted to discover about him and my heart swelled with affection. I stepped closer, reaching for him, wanting to feel his arms around me and to press my lips to his.

He held out his hands and moved out of reach. “Hold on, Lex,” he said. I blinked. “Don’t you think there’s someone else you need to make things right with, first?”

My cheeks flushed and I nodded.

Jamie kissed my forehead and whispered in my ear, “Call me when you’re done.” Then he handed me my phone, the call already ringing into Kelly’s line.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 30

I watched Chris leave, thinking about what he’d said. He really wasn’t pushing me. So why did I feel like I was under pressure?

That was all on me. It was classic Alexis; the weight of the world balanced precariously on every decision I made. Logically, I knew that very little hinged on what job I took, where I went on vacation, what I had for dinner. But somehow my anxiety had convinced me that if I chose poorly the repercussions could be catastrophic.

Being around Chris felt good. He was kind and considerate and probably the sweetest man on the planet. Could I see myself with him? Easily. We would wake up and make breakfast, then spend the time before we had to work drinking coffee and discussing the latest news. On the weekends we could stay in bed and binge tv or get up to wander around the Farmers’ Market, holding hands and meeting up with friends for brunch. Our life together stretched out in front of me, calm, peaceful, and full of love. We could get married and buy a house, get a dog and have a baby. He’d be the best dad.

With a shock, I realized I had forgotten a very important piece of information regarding Chris: He was already a dad!

I frowned. That tidbit brought with it an entire host of things I hadn’t taken into consideration. His ex-wife would always be a part of his life. It’s not that I didn’t like Angie or that I thought she’d try to come between us, but that reminder that he’d loved someone else would always be present. I liked kids. At least, I was sure I would, if I spent any time around them. Chewing my lip, it dawned on me that life with Chris might cause as much anxiety as it quelled.

When I walked into my apartment, Jamie was standing at the window, hands in his pockets and his shoulders down. He didn’t turn when I came in. He didn’t say anything, either.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s time we had a talk.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?”

I froze, guilt settling like a weight in my stomach. “What do you mean? Of course not. But I think we both have questions that deserve answers.”

Jamie nodded, shuffled his foot on the carpet, then crossed the room and sat in the chair he’d been in earlier.

He didn’t look up at me once.

As soon as I was settled across from him, hands clenched in my lap, I tried to order my thoughts. I had no idea what to start with. Should I tell him things I think he wants to know? Ask him my questions? Keep my mouth shut and wait for him to start?

I watched him and it became obvious he wasn’t about to take the initiative. He was slouched forward in the chair, elbows resting on his thighs. Staring at the floor, his hands hung limp between his knees. Everything about him felt dejected and heartbroken. And, once again, it was because of me.

“Are you in love with him, Lex?” he asked the floor.

Was I? That was the million-dollar question. How did I feel about Chris? There was a part of me that wanted to spend all my time with him, to kiss him again, to just lie in his arms. But the rational part of me was able to look at the situation and see it the way he had described our kiss: ‘It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.’

Looking at Jamie in my living room and seeing what my behavior was doing to him broke my heart. I wanted to gather him to me and kiss him, soothe him, and take away all the hurt.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m so confused. I don’t know if these are real feelings or something left over from high school or just a reaction to the way he thinks he feels about me.”

Jamie sat up and finally met my gaze. His lips curved into the ghost of a smile, but his eyes were still filled with pain. “That’s better news than I was expecting,” he said. “Watching how comfortable you two are with each other, I was sure this was the end for me.” His face darkened and he turned away. “But the fact that you kissed him is going to hang over us for a long time.”

“I know.” I stared at my hands as I picked at my nails. Oh, I was aware that I had hurt him in a moment of stupidity and the guilt weighed heavily on me. “It sounds like a broken record, but I never meant for that to happen. It was nothing but a moment of weakness.”

I was going to say more, try to apologize again, to get him to understand what I had been feeling in that moment with Chris. But as I looked at Jamie’s sad, distraught face, something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute. I’ve already explained this, I’ve already apologized. It’s your turn to start talking.”

His brow furrowed, he cocked his head and asked, “What do you mean? About what?”

I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes, giving him the best glare I could muster as I uttered one word.

Kelly.”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 28

“You – you what?” I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. This was Jamie, MY Jamie, who had never wished harm to anyone.

He ground his fist into the palm of his other hand and frowned at the floor. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and dark.

“I wanted to hurt you, to make you feel as bad as I did. I brought Brenda to make you think that I had moved on, that every minute of every day wasn’t spent thinking about you and missing you.” He glanced up. “Wondering who you were with.”

I couldn’t hold his gaze for long, as guilt settled in my chest like a lead weight. My hands twisted in my lap, knotting my fingers, clenching into fists. There was not one word I could think of to say. Nothing was going to make this better. An apology would sound weak and wouldn’t assuage my guilt or his anger, and would probably only serve to make things worse.

He stood suddenly and paced across the living room, sweeping his hands over his hair repeatedly, shaking his head.

“You were everything to me,” he began. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do for you, Alexis. Nothing. If I could give you the moon and stars, you know you’d already have them. Since the day we met, the only thing I wanted to do was make you happy. And what did you do with that?”

Coming to a stop with his back to me, he hung his head. His sadness was radiating off him and I knew I needed to make things better, to try to explain again why I was doing what I was.

“Oh, Jamie. I –“

Before I could even start, he had spun around and was looming over me, his finger pointing menacingly in my face.

“Don’t!” he bellowed. “You don’t get to talk right now, Alexis!”

I shrank back into the couch, my eyes wide. I had never seen him like this. Jamie didn’t raise his voice. He had never tried to intimidate me or threaten me. This was a stranger in front of me, not the Jamie I knew.

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and blew out a deep breath. Keeping my eyes on him, I waited.

“Shit. This is not what I wanted. Things weren’t supposed to go down like this.” Turning to face me, he looked down, his brow furrowed. “Yes. I wanted to hurt you. That was my whole plan in coming to the art show. I wanted to make you feel as small, unloved, and insignificant as you made me feel.”

I kept my eyes down, watching the floor as he started pacing again. This had become a surreal situation and one that I didn’t know how to handle. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hurt me, not really. He didn’t deserve the way I’d treated him, not for one second. Coming to the art show to confront me only made sense.

I frowned. He came to the art show to confront me? But…how did he even know I would be there?

Rising from the couch inch by inch, anger bubbled up inside me. “Jamie,” I murmured.

He whirled around surprised to find me so close behind him. His eyes flew wide for a second then narrowed and he crossed his arms in defiance. I continued to advance on him.

“Jamie…how did you know I was going to be there? I didn’t tell anyone. It was a last-minute decision. It’s not the sort of thing that I generally attend, so I know you didn’t guess.” I jabbed a finger into his chest, my anger overshadowing any fear he had caused a moment before. “How did you know? Do you have my phone tapped or something?”

Rolling his eyes, he stepped around me, hiding his face and putting some distance between us.

“Have your phone tapped?” he scoffed. “Don’t be rididculous! Who do you think I am – James Bond? How would I even do that?”

I followed him and stepped in his path. “Then how? You’re not a damn psychic.”

There was no way I was letting him get away without an explanation and I could tell by his face that he knew it.

“Jesus, you’re stubborn.” Sighing, he relented. “It was Kelly. She told me you were going to be there and suggested that I come talk to you.”

“Bullshit,” I spat. “Kelly wouldn’t do that. She was getting me away from everything, including thinking about you.”

He shrugged. “Look, she knew that neither of us would be the first to reach out and she was tired of getting caught in the middle. So…she orchestrated an ‘accidental’ meeting where we could hash things out.” Looking smug, he added, “She wasn’t expecting me to have my own plan.”

None of this was making sense. I pushed my hands against my temples to keep my head from exploding.

“I don’t understand! There are so many things you just said that are crazy I don’t even know where to start.” I fell back into the couch and stared at the ceiling. Without looking at him, I knew Jamie had sat down and was watching me closely.

I thought again about what he said, and something wasn’t sitting right.

“Wait – when did Kelly tell you where we were going?”

I felt him shrug. “I don’t know. On the phone the night before, I guess. She let it slip and we set it up from there.”

“You were…already talking to her when she ‘let it slip’? Why were you on the phone with her?”

He moved from the couch to the chair across from me without saying anything. I sat up and stared at him.

“How often do you two talk, Jamie?”

Now he was the one who couldn’t look me in the eye. His knee was bouncing and he was suddenly very interested in the floor. “Come on, Alexis. There’s no law that says I can’t talk to Kelly without you. We’re friends, too, you know.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.” My chest started to hurt. “I would never hang out with one of your friends without you.”

He launched out of the chair and started toward the door. “Jesus, Alexis, can you hear yourself? This isn’t on me, you know. You’re the one who decided to call off the wedding and-“

“Postpone.”

He froze, but he still wouldn’t look at me.

“I didn’t call off the wedding, Jamie. I postponed it.”

A heavy silence hung in the air and the pain in my chest grew. “What did you mean about Kelly getting caught in the middle? She’s my best friend. There is no ‘middle’.”

He didn’t speak or move, but deflated a little with a long, drawn-out sigh.

Turning toward me with his hands in his pockets, he chewed his lip and tried to explain. “Alexis, none of this was supposed to happen. Like I said, it was never my intention to hurt you. It was only when you backed out – sorry, put off the wedding that things got out of hand.“

“What the hell are you telling me, Jamie?” My stomach clenched and wanted to eject its contents.

Jamie moved toward me, holding out a hand. I took an involuntary step back, the idea of him touching me pissing me off. Just as the bile in my stomach was rising, so was my anger. I could feel it like the mercury in a thermometer, climbing higher and higher.

“Alexis, please, just listen to me –“

He was interrupted by a sudden, frantic knocking at my door that made both of us jump. I wasn’t expecting anyone else – hell, I wasn’t expecting Jamie, and yet here he was. I pointed a finger at him, giving him my most severe scowl, and said, “We are not even close to being done here.”

It was satisfying to see a flash of fear in his eyes.

The knocking continued without stopping, setting my already frazzled nerves on edge. Moving faster, I yanked the door open just to make the noise stop.

“Hey Lexi, you okay?”

My mouth dropped open and I groaned. “What are you doing here?”

Chris stepped over the threshold and grasped my shoulders, looking me over before leaning in and kissing my cheek.

“The way you sounded on the phone had me worried, thought maybe you were in some kind of trouble. I was already in my car and decided to swing by and make sure you were all right.”

His hands tightened on my shoulders and even before I saw the shift of his gaze behind me, I knew things were just about to get really awkward.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 27

Needless to say, Kelly and I didn’t stick around for the whole weekend. I was incapable of carrying on conversation and I wasn’t about to subject Kel to that kind of crap for 48 hours. So she drove us home.

The convertible top stayed up this time.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” I snapped. I realized how shitty I sounded as soon as it came out of my mouth. Kelly didn’t deserve that. “Sorry.”

Staring out the window, I had never felt so low. Normal people didn’t behave like this. Nothing made any sense to me anymore and I didn’t know what to do to make it better.

“God, I’ve made such a mess out of everything. This isn’t what I wanted.”

She didn’t look at me, but I caught a little side-eye before Kelly responded. “Isn’t it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”

Under no circumstance was I going to let that go. “Nope. Talk.”

There was a long pause before she answered. “Maybe deep down you wanted to break things off with Jamie but were too afraid to.” She shrugged.

“Are you suggesting that there’s some subconscious ulterior motive behind all of this?”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Maybe. What do I know? I’m no head-shrinker. I just think…I don’t know.”

Wondering if she could feel the anger rolling off me, I faced her. “No, please, continue. Why would I do something like that?”

We pulled up to a red light and Kelly finally looked at me. “Jamie is a great guy. Maybe you don’t think you deserve him. Or you’re so afraid he’s going to leave that you’re making him leave.”

The light changed and her attention returned to the street. “Or maybe you really want to be with Chris.”

There wasn’t a quick response to that. I started gnawing on a fingernail, a nervous habit I’d fallen back into recently. My anger drained away, but it was replaced with a burst of panic. Could she be right?

I stared out the window at the passing scenery, not seeing any of it. Partially because I was preoccupied with the ideas Kelly had presented – and partially because of the tears in my eyes.

What was supposed to be a relaxing, four-day weekend ended up being a very uncomfortable Friday night crying in a B&B. Kelly dropped me off after the deep-dive conversation on the drive home Saturday morning and I promptly went back to bed. I stayed there for the rest of the day, not quite sleeping but not fully conscious, either.

There was a lot of emotional self-flagellation. I was a horrible human being. Nothing would ever be good again. Everything was ruined and everyone hated me. The hole I had buried myself in was so deep I couldn’t think of how to dig myself out. There was no universe in which Jamie would still want to marry me.

So where did that leave me?

Late in the afternoon I hauled my sorry carcass from the bedroom to the couch so I could gorge myself on trashy television. It was imperative that I find others whose live were worse than mine, if they existed. I was only two episodes into some show where were into fake online relationships when I got a text from Chris.

I groaned.

Hey! What’re you up to?

Staring at the phone, I wondered if he’d notice if I simply didn’t respond.

What do you say to mini golf and pizza?

“Damn it, Chris,” I cursed him.

I finally typed out a reply: I don’t think that’s a good idea.

He didn’t answer right away, and I thought maybe he got the hint. Or that I hurt his feelings.

Instead, he called me.

“Chris, what are you doing? This can’t happen.” I didn’t even say hello, just launched into rebuffing him. My tone must have come across as bad as I felt.

“Hey, are you okay? You don’t sound so good.”

“Gee thanks.”

He chuckled and I heard him shift the phone. “Listen, I know I said I wouldn’t push, but I’d really like to get together. It doesn’t have to be anything – we can go grocery shopping if that’s all you can do. I just…” He took a deep breath and continued, “Can I see you?”

Tremendously bad idea. In my state of mind, lost and guilty and vulnerable, I felt like I had nothing to lose at this point. That meant I was capable of making some appalling decisions that would only send me spiraling deeper into a hole of self-loathing. I had been there once in the past and I didn’t know if I could claw my way out of there again. But before I could answer, there was a knock at my door. I told Chris to hold on and checked the peep hole.

Jamie was in the hallway.

“Shit.”

Both Chris and Jamie heard my expletive.

“Alexis? Can we talk?” Jamie called from the other side of the door.

I heard Chris through the phone asking, “Lexi? What’s wrong?”

Making a quick decision, I hissed into the phone, “Everything’s fine, I have to go!” I ended the call and ran my fingers through my hair the best I could, knowing my curls were likely twisted and terrifying. There was no point in looking in the mirror first – I could imagine how gross I looked. Jamie already knew I was home so hiding was no longer an option. Best to just get the official break-up over so I could mourn it and return to hating myself in solitude.

Taking a deep breath, I opened the door a little and was surprised by how disheveled Jamie looked. Normally so very put-together with perfectly coiffed hair and a close shave, he looked like he hadn’t slept or seen a mirror recently, either. His hands were jammed deep in his pockets and he looked miserable.

And I was the reason.

“Hey. Can I come in?”

My throat closed up, threatening to unleash an ocean of tears, so I just nodded and pulled the door open farther. Once inside, he looked around and I caught a slight grin.

“What the hell are you watching?”

I snatched up the remote and clicked the tv off, blushing. “Shut up.”

He chuckled and turned to face me. There was so much pain and sadness in his eyes I wanted to gather him in my arms and make it all go away. But I was the reason it was there so how, exactly, would that work? We stood awkwardly glancing at each other and fidgeting. I finally pointed to one of the chairs.

“Can I make you some coffee or something?” He shook his head and sat, clasping his hands in front of him. I lowered myself to the edge of the couch and waited.

Jamie cleared his throat and said to the floor, “Alexis, you know I’d never want to hurt you.”

My stomach clenched and I seriously thought I was going to vomit. This was it.

“Normally, that is. In our normal life together, I would never want to hurt you.” He looked up then with fire in his eyes. “But yesterday, that was exactly what I wanted more than anything.”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 25

Kelly had a sleek red convertible because, well, of course she did. She bought it for herself as a high school graduation present and this little baby had seen most of our shenanigans through the years. My curls were being whipped into a knotted mess which was the opposite of what I was normally okay with. But that day, flying down the highway with my best friend, it was freeing.

We were singing along to our favorite nostalgic songs, loud and off-key and rarely with the right lyrics. It wouldn’t solve all my problems, but Kelly was whisking me away for a long weekend at an art festival a few hours out of town. She’d used this approach in the past and it usually worked. It became her mission to keep my mind off the issue at hand until I was able to look at it rationally. Knowing my propensity for overthinking everything until I became frozen by indecision, I was beyond grateful that she had my back.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t working quite yet. There was just too much I needed to figure out. I didn’t mean to open that door with Chris, honest to God, I didn’t. Over the years I had convinced myself that our relationship had been a necessary lesson on giving and receiving love, on caring about another person fully. I kept my feelings for him close to my heart, knowing he’d always hold a special place there. But now…

I ran my fingertips over my lips, the memory of kissing Chris still vivid and exciting. A thrill ran through me as I thought back to how his mouth had felt on mine. For just a second, I was able to revel in the heat of that moment, about the way he had looked at me and what he had said.

“You can’t deny there’s something strong between us, even all these years later! Maybe that’s why you can’t go through with the wedding.”

Oh god, the wedding. Jamie’s face filled my vision and my guilt tried to drown me. It had been weeks since I’d even talked to him, and that last time had been strained and horrible. Every day, I picked up my phone and dialed his number, just to hear his voice. And every day, I chickened out and couldn’t make myself press send.

I mean, what could I even say to him? This whole situation had gotten completely out of hand. Jamie was everything I wanted – wasn’t he? He was kind and funny, he was supportive of my career, accepting of my crazy, he loved my family and my friends and made me feel like I was actually worthy of his love.

Well done, Alexis. You went out of your way to prove him wrong.

What had started out as an attempt to convince myself that we would be together forever had only served to make things more complicated. I didn’t know what was real anymore! Was I stalling the wedding because I was afraid or because I just didn’t want to get married? Were my feelings for Chris real and unresolved or was I just feeling the residual affection from years ago?

“Alexis, stop it right now,” Kelly called over the wind.

I looked at her with wide eyes. “What? What am I doing?”

She rolled her eyes as she took the exit off the highway. “Who do you think you’re talking to? Your angst is billowing off you in waves.”

Groaning, I covered my face with my hands. “What am I supposed to do? I love Jamie. I do. But Chris…” I trailed off, my mind wandering again.

Kelly parked and turned to me with raised eyebrows. “Damn. That must have been some kiss.”

“Am I a horrible person if I say that it really, really was?”

“Not at all,” Kelly reassured me. “But this weekend is not about Chris’s breathtaking lips or Jamie the Saint. This is about you, me, deep and meaningful art, and far too many bottles of wine.”

We checked into our hotel room and had a phenomenal dinner and at least one bottle of wine. Kelly was right to bring me here. It was exactly what I needed – an escape from the realities of the giant mess I’d made of my life. And I still had one more ex to talk to before I could feel the journey was complete. There was no way that conversation would make any of this less complicated.

But for now I was happy to forget everything but my pleasant buzz, the warm weather, and the up-and-coming artists all around us. We got to watch a glass-blowing demonstration, heard some danceable music, and were awed by the depth of talent.

We were laughing as we devoured a little bag of local macaroons, talking about the favorite pieces we’d seen so far. In the middle of a sentence, Kelly’s eyes flew open wide and the words seemed to catch in her throat. I started pounding her on the back, thinking she had been wolfing down the cookies too fast and was choking. She swatted my hands away and grabbed my arm.

“Come on. There was an antique shop over this way that I wanted to check out.”

She started dragging me down the sidewalk, my hands full of cookies and an empty coffee cup. “Hold on! Let me throw this trash away first!” Laughing, I wrenched my arm out of her grasp and turned around to find the trash can I knew we had just seen.

“Alexis! No! Just come on!” Kelly tried to grab me but I danced out of her reach.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shook my head and headed in the opposite direction. The garbage was maybe ten feet behind us. What was she being so weird about? Kelly had never been an antiques gal, and who was I to stifle her adventurous spirit, but there was no urgency when it came to antiques.

I tossed the empty cup in the bin and looked up as I turned to follow my friend. My feet wouldn’t move, though. Circling back around, I had to double-check that I saw what I thought I saw.

Between the stands, on the other side of the street, was Jamie. He was smiling as he walked, looking over the paintings and sculptures he passed. I crept along sideways on my side of the street, peering through the gaps where I could. What was he doing here? Did he follow us? Maybe he wanted to talk, wanted to see if I had changed my mind or at least make sure I was okay. I wanted to talk to him, too. I missed him and thought about him every day. I wanted to make sure he knew that.

Kelly bounded up behind me. “Come on, lets get out of here.”

“Did you know he was coming to this?” I glanced at her over my shoulder and she grimaced. “Is this a plan to get us to talk to each other?”

She shook her head slowly and nodded toward Jamie. When I turned, ready to sprint across the street and throw myself in his arms, what I saw froze me in my place.

Jamie wasn’t alone.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 22

The days dragged by and I was lonely. And bored. Restless, antsy, sad – any and all of those descriptors applied. I began isolating myself. Kelly had her own life and was dating a new guy who seemed pretty promising, so I didn’t want to dump my depression on her. My family…well, suffice it to say that was a tenuous situation that was still working itself out.

Who was I kidding – It was a festering wound, that’s what it was.

My mom was still furious and took my postponing the wedding as a personal affront. My sisters, of course, all had their own opinions on what I was doing and what I should do. And none of them understand why I needed to put the ceremony off for just a little bit longer.

What had I learned so far? I sprawled on my couch in the late afternoon sun and stared at the ceiling. What had I gained to make this endeavor worthwhile? Had I learned anything?

Well…I guess I learned that Brian had created his perfect little world by finally believing he deserved the love Janie gave him. Maybe that’s where my wedding troubles lay. Could it be that I didn’t think I was worthy of Jamie’s love and that’s why I was doubting it was real?

I learned that Doug was even more of a nightmare than I had remembered. Was there a lesson there? I frowned. If there was, it was drowned out by my disgust. Maybe it had something to do with trial and error being essential on the path to happiness? Or that you had to kiss some frogs before you found your prince?

Either way, if I never saw Doug again, it would be too soon.

My musings were interrupted by a ping from my phone. I assumed it was my dad checking in and, to be honest, I didn’t even want to talk to him right now. He was the only one who had been supportive, and he was a wonderful human being, but…Well, he loved my mom, too, and she was with him 24/7 and was able to put some serious pressure on him. I was fairly certain the contact was a reconnaissance mission assigned by my mother.

You know, to see if I had come to my senses.

The phone pinged again and I picked it up with the intention of muting it. But I glanced at the screen and was shocked to see the message was not from my father.

It was from Chris.

Hey – just checking in. How are you doing?

A warmth spread through my chest and I scootched into a sitting position. I had not been expecting to hear from him. Like, ever again. But it wasn’t unwelcome.

Hi! I’m okay. What are you up to?

I watched as the little typing bubble appeared and disappeared several times. Well, that wasn’t good. That was a sign of someone self-editing a text multiple times because he didn’t know what to say. That sent my neurotic brain spiraling: Was my text too vague? Did he think I was boring? Was he contacting me to tell me some bad news? Had he talked to Jamie? The suspense was NOT good for me.

Finally, an actual text came through.

Want to get a drink? Or food? Or go for a walk or whatever?

What.

I didn’t know what to make of that. I could definitely use some of his positive energy, but the indecisiveness of the request gave me a bad feeling. Like he was going to give me some devastating news. But I found that I really wanted to see him.

YES. Please. Where and when?

His reply was immediate, no hesitant bubble this time.

How’s now at Rudy’s? My treat.

I looked down at my yoga pants and grungy sweatshirt. Uh…

You’re on! Give me 30 minutes?

Already dashing to the bathroom for a quick shower, I had to double back to see his response.

Perfect. See you soon!

On a Wednesday night, Rudy’s was pretty empty. It wasn’t ever too crowded or rowdy even at the busiest times, but I could count the other patrons on one hand. A jukebox was playing a romantic country tune just loud enough to hear without having to battle it for conversation.

Chris was already standing at the bar, a frosty mug in each hand. His face lit up when I walked in and, I had to admit, my heart palpitated a bit. He led me to a table in a corner, away from the bar, where we could have a little privacy.

“Thanks for coming, Lexi,” he said, kissing me on the cheek. “I just needed to get out for a bit.”

I blushed at the affectionate gesture. “I’m glad you suggested it. I’ve basically been languishing in my apartment for days. I was about to start breaking shit just for something to do!”

He laughed and his dimples came out in full force. We sat quietly for a minute or two, just sipping our drinks and looking around. He commented on the jukebox song and I asked him about his son and then we fell silent again.

Finally, Chris leaned back and asked me, “What’s up with you and Jamie? Your wedding? Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” I shrugged. “There’s nothing new, I guess. Still in a holding pattern.”

“Have you and Jamie talked about it?”

I trailed my finger around the rim of the mug and avoided eye contact.

“I haven’t talked to him since…well, since the night you and I had dinner.”

Had it been that long? After Jamie and I met, I hadn’t gone more than twenty-four hours without talking to him at least once. He told me not to call, so I hadn’t called.

He hadn’t, either.

Chris nudged my foot under the table to get my attention, since my mind had wandered far away. “And…?’ he prompted.

“And nothing. He came over. When he left in the morning he told me not to call him until we could start planning the wedding again. So…we haven’t talked since.” Saying it out loud made it feel exponentially more pathetic.

He cocked his head and frowned. “That has to be hard on you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Yes, this was my doing. I started this, I postponed the wedding, I hurt Jamie and everyone else. Most likely, no one had any sympathy for me – and I couldn’t blame them. But that didn’t mean I didn’t feel like trash about it, or that I wasn’t devastated by my own indecision.

But Chris looking at me with such concern and worrying about how I was feeling brought tears to my eyes. I shrugged. He reached out and covered my hand with his and – god damnit – that opened the floodgates.

“Oh, Lexi, I’m so sorry.”

Shaking my head, I waved him off and swiped at my cheeks.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, Chris,” I scoffed. “I brought this on myself and have no one but myself to blame.”

He leaned across the table, keeping his voice low. “If you weren’t ready – for whatever reason – you had every right to call it off. You shouldn’t marry someone out of a sense of obligation.”

I stopped mid-sniffle and just stared at Chris. Damnit. God damnit, why wasn’t he a jerk? I needed him to be a jerk at that moment and he was not meeting my expectations.

I drained my beer, slamming it on the table a little harder than I meant to, dragging the back of my hand across my mouth. I was suddenly feeling antsy and, truth be told, like I wanted to do something a little wild. Leaning forward, my hand on Chris’s arm, I gave him a wicked grin.

“Wanna get out of here?”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 21

I saw Brian approaching before he saw me. He was with his wife and two small boys, pushing the stroller with one hand and waving the other in the air as he told a story.

Brian hadn’t changed much. He was still tall and gangly, but a little less so as he’d filled out over the years. It changed the shape of his face and made his big engaging smile even more charming. His wife was pretty with long, straight blond hair and an athletic build on a petite frame. She looked kind and sweet and I was so happy she had found Brian.

When his eyes zeroed in on me across the park, his grin grew even bigger. He pointed me out to his wife, and I was immediately apprehensive. She had to think I was crazy. What kind of weirdo meets up with ex-boyfriends? Married ex-boyfriends? I hadn’t explained to Brian what I was doing, or why I wanted to see him. He never asked why, just accepted with enthusiasm. To my surprise, his wife flashed a genuine smile and waved at me before pressing a kiss to Brian’s cheek and steering the two little ones to the playground.

He jogged my way grinning from ear to ear and my stomach flipped as he drew closer. Did I know what I was going to say? Good lord, no. But I stood up and offered a shaky smile anyway.

“Brian. I’m so glad you were able to come.”

Stopping a few feet from me, he stared at my hand like I was offering him a snake before closing the distance and enveloping me in a hug. This was no awkward, uncomfortable hug – he pulled me close and held me tight and all of my nerves melted away.

This was Brian. I had nothing to be afraid of here.

He kept an arm around my shoulders as we began to walk. It was easy and friendly. Brian asked about Kelly and about my family. I asked him about his work at the high school and was thrilled to learn he’d been composing his own jazz music.

“It’s amazing,” he gushed. “Anything and everything inspires me: the sound of the rain, my kids laughing, the wind in the leaves. And the freedom of creating something that is all my own is intoxicating! I’ve never been happier.”

Arm in arm we kept moving through the park. I talked about Jamie. A lot. I told Brian about how we met, how he proposed, how he dealt with my neuroses always with a smile.

We continued swapping stories until my stomach growled loud enough for Brian and everyone within ten feet to hear.

“Oh my god,” I groaned, burying my face in my hands.

He simply looped his arm through mine and steered me to a nearby soft pretzel vendor. We sat in companionable silence while we ate. It was refreshing to just be still in the sunshine and the light breeze, not feeling compelled to do or say or think about anything.

Of course, that feeling was short-lived. Brian cleared his throat and crumpled up his pretzel paper.

“So. Alexis. I’m not complaining – I’ve had a terrific time catching up and just hanging out with you – but I’m fairly certain you had an ulterior motive for seeing me.”

I stared at him, chewing the last bite of my pretzel very slowly. I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to say and we’d been walking and talking for an hour.

“You’re right. There was something else I wanted to talk about. So.” I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. “So. I don’t know if you heard – probably not, I mean why would you? – but I got engaged recently.”

The smile exploded across his face and I could tell that he was genuinely ecstatic for me. “I DID hear! When is the wedding?”

I grimaced. “Well, that’s the thing. It’s kind of…postponed indefinitely.”

He grabbed my hands and his smile faded as quickly as it had bloomed. “Oh my god! What happened? Are you okay?”

“Yes…and no. I mean, it’s not like anything actually happened, the wedding isn’t called off. Jamie is amazing and perfect for me and my favorite person in the world. But I just…I don’t know, I’m not ready, I guess.”

Brian pulled me up from the bench and started strolling around the fountain in the middle of the park, obviously trying to think of something to say besides ‘you’re a crazy person’.

“Brian, how did you know things would last? Was there some kind of clue? Was there something she did or said that told you that, no matter what, she would love you forever?”

His roar of laughter startled me enough to make me jump a foot out of my skin. I wasn’t trying to be funny, so I was pretty peeved that his response to my honest question was laughter. He must have felt me tense up next to him because he squeezed my shoulder and let the chuckle die in his throat.

“I’m so sorry, Lex, I don’t mean to laugh. But what makes you think there is ever anything that can give you that kind of definitive proof? No one knows they’re going to be together forever – or that they’ll divorce after seven years. It’s all based on your faith in the other person.”

I groaned. “I know, I know. But – and I don’t mean to be rude or anything – but you had such low self-esteem when I knew you, how were you so convinced that getting married was the right thing?”

In the distance I could see his wife, Janie, returning from the playground. During our conversation Brian and I had giggled at the similarity in the names of the people we loved best. The children were already dozing in the stroller, dirty, exhausted, and happy. I glanced up at Brian and the look on his face when he saw his little family was ridiculously sweet and sappy. I loved it.

“You’re not rude, Lex. I didn’t think much of myself back then, you’re right. I needed constant approval from the people around me, you included – maybe especially. Let’s not pretend – I was gangly and goofy and nerdy and my mouth was too big – the fact that I had a girlfriend ever was a miracle in itself. But Janie…” He sighed. “I don’t know if I can explain it, but just her loving me gave me a confidence I had never felt before. And not just because she’s smokin’ hot.”

I bumped him with my hip and rolled my eyes.

“Seriously! She helped me see myself through her eyes and it was…amazing. I didn’t know if we would last forever – I still don’t know. But what I do know is that I want to spend all the time I can with her, no matter if it’s an eternity or two years.”

We stopped in front of the bench where I’d been perched when he arrived and turned to face each other. When he smiled down at me this time, there was nothing but kindness and affection in his eyes. He took my hands in his and gave them a squeeze.

“I don’t know exactly what you were looking for here, Lex, but I hope I was helpful. Listening to you talk about Jamie, I can hear how much you love him in every word.” Brian pulled me in for one last hug and shook his head. “Kind of strange that the tables have turned, huh? I’ve never seen you so hesitant before.”

I pressed my cheek against his shoulder and my words came out as barely a whisper.

“I’ve never had so much to lose.”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 20

I had always loved this park. Full of gentle hills, lots of open green space, little clusters of trees shading picnic tables. There was something for everyone. Waiting on the bench, the warm sun on my shoulders failed to ease my nerves.

My leg bounced up and down and I twisted my fingers in my lap. I watched the families and couples as they passed me, examining each and every face. There was only one I was looking for. I hadn’t seen him in years and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The shoebox of memories that I had dragged off the shelf when all of this started had contained more than the sweet postcards and photos from Chris. I also had kept a large collection of notes and stories from Brian.

Tall and thin with thick black hair, Brian was my first boyfriend at college. Chris and I were officially over, I had sent Doug packing, and I was ready for a fresh start. Brian was it.

I lived in a co-ed dorm that first year, the floors alternating between genders. Brian was on the fifth floor and I lived on eighth. We didn’t have any classes together, but we saw each other in the cafeteria and the lobby, in the elevators and the common room. One of my eighth-floor neighbors had grown up with one of his fifth-floor neighbors and she brought me to his party one weekend.

Brian was perched in the corner, surrounded by a group of his music department friends, and I was immediately drawn to him. He was telling stories and making the people around him laugh. Snippets of songs or joke punchlines floated to me across the room. Eventually I drifted over to join the crowd near him and got drawn into the conversation. I wasn’t much for singing, but Brian was engaging and goofy, with an innocence about him that I sorely needed after the nightmare that was Doug.

By the end of the night, we were huddled together on the couch, talking and laughing until nearly everyone else had either gone home or fallen asleep. I gave him my phone number, but several days passed and I hadn’t heard from him. I shrugged it off as a great encounter, a fun night, and figured he must not have been as interested as I had thought.

The following Friday, I came home from class and found a tightly folded collection of papers shoved under my door. It was a note. An honest-to-god note like you’d pass in a middle school classroom. But this one was full of drawings and rambling thoughts about me, from Brian. The things he said were sweet and funny. He talked about how happy he was that he got to meet me, that he had actually lost my number and had to track me down through our mutual friends. They wouldn’t give him my room number so he had resorted to this outdated means of communication and they had agreed to deliver it.

His drawings were cute and simple but very well done. One showed the two of us sitting on the couch at the party, smiling at each other. Another one was him at a desk scribbling furiously. I had never had anyone draw anything for me and I was immediately charmed. I wrote back, with nowhere near the comedy, but gave him my number once again and stressed that I’d love to see him.

Thinking back, I probably should have seen that as a sign. He had written all these lovely words but hadn’t asked to see me, hadn’t offered up his phone number. I wasn’t opposed to being assertive and asking him out, but this became a pattern for our relationship down the road.

It turned out that Brian was a Music major, with his sights set on becoming a high school band instructor. He sang and played a multitude of instruments, but the trumpet was his first love. And he was an exceptional player. We didn’t jump into a romantic relationship immediately, but we did spend an awful lot of time together for the next few weeks. I would keep him company while he practiced, doing my own homework while he ran scales or worked on his improvisation. He would make sure I had a ticket front and center to any performance he was part of, giving me a wink and a smile in between songs. We would meet for dinner or walk to the coffee shop on the hill to support his friends doing open mic shows.

Even after we were seeing each other almost daily, I still found letters and notes and drawings under my door. He wrote me stories, self-deprecating humorous tales where I was a princess and he the lowly jester, painting himself as unworthy of my attention. There were little jabs at himself, almost always coming from the fictional me. Of course, I would laugh at these and reassure him that I liked him. He was cute and funny, his stories and notes full of compliments. I didn’t see this behavior as problematic until months later.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 19

I knew I was wallowing: in self-pity, in nostalgia, in doubt. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut and gone forward with the wedding. After all, I loved Jamie and being with him made me happy. He gave me strength when I was my own worst enemy.

It was no secret that I was neurotic. My family knew it, my friends knew it, I knew it. Overthinking was my super power. I could ‘what-if’ anyone out of anything, if given a chance. I talked myself out of many opportunities using this method.

I could have gone to a prestigious college on the other side of the country. It was a big city full of diversity and culture and was the opposite of where I had grown up. But the what-ifs won out: What if something happened to someone I loved and I was a 24-hour drive away? What if I didn’t fit in anywhere and was completely alone? What if I couldn’t keep up with the classes and I was proven to be a fraud, as I fully expected? No, it was easier to stay within a two-hour radius of my hometown, just in case. If I failed, when I failed, I wouldn’t have far to fall.

My fears prompted me to settle into a ‘good enough’ job, and allowed me to wave off anything daring under the guise of safety. But with Jamie…he saw me in a way I never could.

He had a way of listening to what I said and finding my fear behind the words. He saw through all my nonsense and had a very diplomatic way of calling me out on it. Jamie would tilt his head and purse his lips and then lay out the truth for me.

A promotion opportunity presented itself. It was a perfect position for me, full of research and data gathering and analysis. I gushed about it to Jamie, so excited about the chance to do something I could love doing. But the more I talked, the more I talked myself out of it. I presented my own counter arguments, predicting the future five or six steps down the road to where the position was obsolete, or where I realized I wasn’t equipped to handle the responsibilities, or where I was simply burned out and resented the job – and myself. I managed to rave about and dismiss the promotion all in the same breath.

“Are you done?” He looked at me calmly, waiting. I nodded.

“This job was made for you. It is built for a person with your unique skills and personality. They won’t fire you if you don’t get the promotion. You lose nothing. But think of everything you could gain! Do you know how rare it is for someone to find a career that they love? I can’t think of anyone who would say they were passionate about what they do. But you? You were born to do this.”

I chewed my lip. “But –“

“Alexis, take the chance. I have faith in you, even if you don’t. Enough for the both of us.”

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