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“Do you have any pets?” asked Max who lived across the road had asked when they first took possession of their new vacation home. Max and Fanny, Max’s ancient mutt, had brought the Atwoods a cherry pie. “Home-baked,” Max had bragged though Alison could clearly see the “Hannaford” sticker on the back of the tin plate.
Elliott Roosevelt’s Motorcar
Dreams. At best, distractions; at worst, unwelcome revelations. Mrs. Longworth had spent her entire adult life learning how not to dream. What a shock, then, how humiliating, to find herself suddenly old with nothing to do but dream. She slept so little, it seemed to her.
In that hour before dawn when the darkness begins to condense into familiar shapes, she heard a sound coming from the street below. She thought it must be an insect trapped in the heavy draperies that shielded her bedroom windows.
She hobbled to the window, pushed the draperies aside. Something was moving outside, slowly but deliberately. As if trying to catch her attention.
She’d seen it many times before, of course, although not for a long time. A very long time.
Phaetons they’d called them back when she was a girl. Horseless carriages. With its canvas canopy, its oversized wheels, its rumble seat, and the brass sconces in which—most improbably against this foggy dawn—white candles flickered, the motorcar rolling past her window did resemble a horse-drawn surrey far more than it did a modern automobile.
The thing glided past her townhouse in the fog, past the other grand white sugar-turretted townhouses on Massachusetts Avenue. It slowed as it made the turn onto DuPont Circle.
She saw it, and her hand fluttered to her throat, her breast.
The telephone began to ring. Voices rose from the rooms below. Muffled footsteps mounted the staircase.
But she already knew.
She felt an emotion then that she had no way to describe. It was of the type that could only be mediated by inconsequential interactions with strangers. Perhaps that’s why when the first reporter arrived an hour later, she was dressed and ready to receive him.
The reporter was a ferrety looking young man with slicked back hair and a large nose. Likely a Jew. She sipped coffee from a porcelain cup that had been painted by her stepmother. She did not instruct the help to offer the young man coffee.
“Your feud with Mrs. Roosevelt was legendary, of course, Mrs. Longworth,“ the young man began.
“There was no feud,” the old woman said.
“She was the wife of a Democratic President. You were the wife of a Republican Speaker of the House – “
“There was no feud,” the old woman repeated sharply. “There were sometimes… differences. She was my cousin. These things happen among families. Do your people not have families?”
The young man flushed. He was very awkward, sitting there on her exquisitely embroidered Herendon sofa. His right leg, crossed over his left, revealed gangly bare ankle. Couldn’t he be bothered to wear trousers of the proper length. He consulted his notes. “And you will be going to the funeral?”
“I will not. She didn’t want a funeral. So unlike many others who will be attempting to capitalize on her death, I will abide with her wishes.”
The young man looked so miserable then that against her better judgment, the old woman found herself pitying him. She leaned forward, gave the offending ankle a rap. “If you must buy off the rack, do try and find yourself a tailor who can do something about this. I am going to tell you something about Nell when she was a girl. Perhaps it will explain something of the complicated nature of our feelings toward one another to you; perhaps not. You will not believe it, and even if you do, your editor will not want to publish it. But I’ll tell you anyway. You’re paid to listen.”
And the old woman half-closed her eyes, lay back in the embroidered easy chair that looked more like a throne than any piece of household furniture had the right to look and began to tell a story.
The closest thing to freedom was her bicycle. She pumped up Connecticut Avenue furiously just so she could coast down to Dupont Circle — feet on the handlebars, wind in her hair— at breakneck speeds.
Most of them of the boys fell off their bicycles whenever they attempted this feat. She never had.
Twelve hundred miles away, her famous father stormed a famous hill.
Of course, Alice—that was her name, Alice; like the girl who tumbled down the rabbit hole—ignored her implacable stepmother’s reprimands. Alice was 14, and if 14 was—as her stepmother cautioned—too mature to be cavorting unchaperoned with ruffians of the opposite sex, it was also too mature to listen to a woman who was both ugly and old, and who sat in Auntie Bye’s parlor all day darning old socks though certainly Alice’s father was rich enough to purchase new. Alice’s father was rich enough to purchase anything.
Oh, the games. The glorious, glorious games! They competed with each other in tests of courage. They climbed the tallest trees; they stole past the stuffy guards at the Capitol and slid down the banisters. Alice’s casual disdain for authority emboldened the boys. Into the Center Market they marched, filching cigarettes from stalls inside the Grand Central Palace, stealing apples from the farmers’ carts, then pedaling furiously all the way to the river where nobody knew them to enjoy their contraband.
Alice swam with the boys in a muddy back channel of the Potomac, stripped to her camisole and knickers. “I dare you!” were words that could not be ignored. One afternoon, one of the boys, dressed in his sister’s clothes, knocked on the front door of Auntie Bye’s majestic white house . He’d been put up to it by Alice. “You don’t have the nerve,” she’d told him coolly.
The frightened housemaid showed him into the house, presented him as a caller to Alice’s stepmother.
The following morning, her stepmother summoned Alice into Auntie Bye’s parlor to give her the news.
“You will be leaving Wednesday,” Edith said. “And returning Friday fortnight.”
“But I don’t wish to leave Wednesday,” said Alice.
Edith laughed merrily. “And Mrs. Ludlow Hall does not wish to receive you. Not Wednesday; not any other day. But it is your father’s wish. And he will not be refused. Bring your silver thimble with you. I feel quite sure you will spend a good deal of time sewing.”
To Edith, clearly, this was the end of the conversation. But Alice stood by the room’s door, digging her heels into Auntie Bye’s Persian carpet, as if there were
“I will disgrace you,” Alice told Edith finally.
“Indeed,” Edith replied. “And how will your behavior be different then from what it is already?”
Sent away to visit her ugly cousin Nell! That was the disgrace. That was a calamity.
“I was like a tenement child, you know,” Mrs. Longworth told the reporter. “I had infantile paralysis.”
“Infantile… You mean polio?” the reporter asked. He jotted a few eager notes. “Like the President.”
“It isn’t as though he invented the disease,” she said. “It was quite common in those days. The Summer Plague, we called it then. Most people recovered. He didn’t.”
“It wasn’t widely known during his term in office,” said the reporter.
“Of course not. He was too arrogant for that. A singularly furtive man. He did everything on the sly. He treated my cousin rather terribly, I must say. That wasn’t widely known during his term of office, either. I found it rather lovely to watch him get crippled by polio.”
The reporter must have been a Democrat. This was a quip that would have been greeted by peals of laughter by members of her own party.
“My left leg was shorter than my right leg,” Mrs. Longworth continued. “For a time, it looked as though I might be crippled. But my stepmother wasn’t having any of that. She was a strong-minded woman. For two whole years, every night, she would come to my room and stretch my legs. She used a caliper; it was unpleasant. My brothers used to tease me about not having the same mother. They were very cruel.
“And so, I didn’t love her, though I grew to appreciate her, admire her even as I grew older. But she never could make sense of me. Never understood that above all else, I wanted to be free.”
“My favorite niece,” Papa dubbed Nell.
A small kindness that cost him nothing—these were Papa’s favorite kindnesses—for no one ever saw Nell much after her mother died. Her mother’s mother—the addle-brained Mrs. Ludlow Hall—had whisked the girl and her two younger brothers away to a gloomy estate in the far off Hudson Valley.
Upon arrival in the Hudson Valley, the youngest brother had promptly died. Papa had not been invited to the funeral. The boy’s own father, Papa’s brother, had not been invited to the funeral.
Since that time, there’d been one visit to Sagamore Hill. An Independence Day celebration five years before: Mrs. Ludlow Hall could hardly say no, given Papa’s great service to the nation. But it was to be a very closely supervised visit; Mrs. Ludlow Hall had been quite clear on that point, although she had declined to accompany her granddaughter herself.
“And how did you arrange that?” Alice’s stepmother asked Papa. The family had gathered in Papa’s study on the ground floor of the country estate to await the arrival of the two relations: the girl from the Hudson Valley countryside and her father from New York City. Two bear skins and a zebra skin lay on the floor; above the black mahogany fireplace protruded the heads of a giant stag and a giant oryx.
“Livingstons they may be, but they’re poor as church mice,” Papa said. “I reminded her who holds the purse strings to Nell’s estate.” That was a confusing and therefore disagreeable thing about Alice’s cousin: She was called “Nell,” which was short for “Eleanor,” but her father was also called “Nell,” which was short for Elliot. This often made it impossible to determine just who was being talked about.
“Little pitchers,” Edith said with a warning glance toward Alice.
“Oh, come, come, Edith,” said Papa, “The sheer egoism of a man who would brand his progeny with his own appellation as though she were but a poor reflection of himself.“
Edith, well acquainted with egoism, merely smiled.
“And do you know how he came by that nickname?” Papa continued.
“I do not,” Edith said although, in fact, she did.
“When we were boys, we lived in the City on Broadway and Bowery Road, and one afternoon in late December, Elliott went out walking. When he came home hours later, he returned without his overcoat. Claimed he’d intercepted a street urchin stealing coal but that the miserable child was so downtrodden that he could not turn the boy over to the authorities, indeed he felt moved to give the boy not only his own overcoat but all the money in his pockets as well.
“’What a heartwarming story!’ I said. ‘Mr. Dickens himself could write a novel about you for you’re sweeter than Little Nell!’” Though it had been 25 years since the joke had first been made, Papa threw his head back and roared with laughter at it. “And that is how he got his moniker!”
“Such an amusing story,” said Edith. “The boy, young Gracie Hall. Is he not coming as well? Does Elliot not wish to see his only surviving son?”
“Oh, Nell cares nothing for little Hall,” said Papa dismissively. “He cares only for Nell.”
Through the windows of Papa’s study, the day was bright and still. It had rained that morning, and the carriage road that crossed the manor house’s magnificent lawns was a muddy, rutted mess.
“Alice, please go down to the kitchen and ask about the progress of the jam tarts that will be served for tea when our guests arrive,” Alice’s stepmother instructed.
“Why don’t you ring and ask yourself?” Alice said.
Her stepmother said nothing but turned her head to stare at Alice’s father. “Oh, come, come, Princess.” he said. “Mollify Mama, there’s a good girl.” And turned back to explaining to Ted—Alice’s half-brother, the eldest of her stepmother’s sons—the proper way to shoot an elephant. “You see, their hides are very, very thick –“
Needs must. Alice dawdled through the large central hall, the drawing room, the dining room. Cook and Mary Sweeney didn’t notice her when she walked into the kitchen. They were deep in conversation, their heads close.
“He has a silver tongue on him, make no mistake,” said Mary Sweeney. “He could charm the birds from the trees, that one.”
“Oh, he could charm the skin off a snake,” said Cook.
“He could ransom his soul back from the devil with a single flattering word,” said Mary Sweeney. “The old woman relented, and angry she must have been when he reverted back to his ways. They hid the liquor, you know. But he said the girl must have a ride into town in his fancy motor car. So off they go, himself, the girl, and his dogs. Those old Dutch towns are dry, so he must have had to search long and hard, but finally he finds a place.
“’You wait for me here,’ he tells the girl. ‘I’ll be but a minute.’ And he gives her the straps with the dogs.”
“That poor girl! Ugly as sin, too,” said Cook. “And those dogs!”
“She stands out there hour after hour,” Mary Sweeney continued. “It grows dark. It grows cold. And finally the coachman from the big house finds her and fetches her home. They’d sent him out hours ago but he didna know where to look –“
Alice tapped her foot impatiently, and the two women looked up.
“Mrs. Roosevelt wants to know about the jam tarts,” she announced.
“Oh, I’m sure Mrs. Roosevelt wants to know more politely than that,” Cook said. “You tell Mrs. R that there was enough jam to make the tarts though, to be sure, none left over, so I don’t know about Mr. R’s toast points tomorrow.”
Alice hesitated. “Of whom were you speaking?” she said.
“Of whom were I speaking?” snorted Cook. “Why of me great-great grandfather, not that it’s any business of an insolent girl’s.”
Alice made a face at her.
When she got back to Papa’s study, Ted, Kermit, Ethel, and even baby Archie were clustered round the window. A small whirlwind was making its way through the fields and belts of woodland that surrounded the big house. As it drew closer, the commotion resolved itself into a strange vehicle wending its slow way over the carriage road toward the house.
“Look! It’s Uncle Nell!” Kermit hooted. “In a motorcar.”
Alice peered out curiously. She had seen her Uncle Nell before – or so, she had been told. She did not remember him. But she had never seen a motorcar. It was odd that the thing was able to propel itself, that nothing pulled it. The man inside the horseless trap was wearing goggles, gloves, and a strange sort of leather hat with flaps that went down over his ears.
“Foolish!” boomed Papa.
“Imprudent,” Edith agreed. “Phaetons were not designed for the country. Did he drive that thing all the way from Park Avenue?”
“I should like to ride in that motorcar,” Alice announced. “In fact, I should like to drive it. I shall ask Uncle Nell if I may.”
“You shall do no such thing,” her stepmother said, rising and smoothing her skirts. “I must have a word with Mrs. Sweeney before he’s at the door to keep a close eye on the housemaids. Shall you come with me to greet him, Teedie?”
“I shall not,” said Papa grandly. “You may bring him to me. And Edith – no spirits. No matter how hard he may entreat. He will entreat. And he can be quite persuasive.”
Alice did not quite understand what her father and stepmother found so objectionable about Uncle Nell. He was taller and fairer than Papa. Handsomer, Alice thought. His eyes, larger; his nose, smaller; his sensual lips denoting a greater appreciation of the beautiful. And he seemed quite amiable. Even Alice’s redoubtable stepmother smiled in his presence though she was careful to disguise those smiles behind her hand.
He’d brought gifts and insisted upon presenting them just as soon as he arrived. Penknives for Ted and Kermit. A doll for Ethel. A silver thimble for Alice.
“I do not sew,” said Alice, looking at the glittering object in her hand.
“No?” said Uncle Nell. “Then perhaps you may find some other use for it.”
“Christmas Day is the day when children should get gifts, Elliott,” Edith said.
“Children should get gifts every day, Edith,” Uncle Nell said. When he smiled at Alice, his teeth were dazzling and white.
He’d brought his daughter a gift too, but she did not arrive until the following day to claim it. She’d traveled first by train, then by ferry, then by train again: an unexpected derailment detained the train for several hours; and finally by carriage. Mrs. Ludlow Hall had sent her in the care of a coachman.
A mourning broach made of wispy, yellowish hair. Who had ever heard of such an awful gift? But the girl received it with bright eyes and trembling hands, throwing herself into her father’s arms. He embraced her. They made a tableau, the two of them wrapped in one another’s arms as though nothing else existed.
“It is your mother’s hair!” Uncle Nell announced. “From when the two of us first married.”
“But now, it is just us two. Big Nell and Little Nell. And I will always protect you.”
Edith raised her eyebrows in Papa’s direction. But Papa was occupied trying to remember where he had shot the oryx. “I think it was Medri Bahri. But possibly, possibly, I am mistaken, and it was on the shores of Lake Malawi.”
The coachman who’d escorted Nell stood awkwardly at the side of the room, cap in hands.
“It’s all right, Penfield,” Edith said to him. “I will look after little Nell.”
“I have my instructions, ma’am,” the coachman said softly. He was old and stooped and had the white chin whiskers that were the style in the Dutch north up river. His eyes were a most peculiar shade of bright blue.
“Your instructions are no good here,” Edith said sharply.
“Such impertinence,” Edith murmured to Auntie Bye later that day. Auntie Bye was Papa’s older sister. She’d arrived from Washington D.C. to join in the holiday festivities. “Most inappropriate, too.”
“Perhaps,” said Auntie Bye who was as sensible as she was kind-hearted. “But the distance between the train station in Oyster Bay and Sagamore Hill needs must be traveled by trap. Perhaps Mrs. Ludlow Hall was thinking of that. Is it the same coachman who— ?”
“It is! And he—“ And then Edith noticed Alice. “And why are you here?” she snapped. “Go upstairs to the nursery and find your cousin. Make her go outside. The fresh air will do her good.”
“I’ll come with you, Princess,” Auntie Bye said, reaching for Alice’s hand. “You must not mind your stepmother,” she added when they’d left the drawing room. “It is just her way.”
“I hate her,” Alice said.
“The two of you could learn to love each other better,” Auntie Bye allowed. “She has changed. We were such good friends, Edith and I, when we were growing up, friends of the bosom. And of course, we are good friends still. She has had… disappointments. And, of course, she understands she must not allow disappointments to change her. But they do.”
“By disappointments, do you mean my mama?” Alice asked. “Do you mean my father married my mama first and only married my stepmother after my mama was dead?”
“I do not wish my stepmother dead. I wish her… gone,” Alice said. Auntie Bye could not repress a smile.
Smiles gave way to surprise as aunt and niece walked into the nursery, for there sat handsome Uncle Nell cross-legged on the floor with a Lilliputian teacup in front of him, while ugly Cousin Nell sat across from him, surrounded by a gaggle of Alice’s dolls, pouring imaginary tea. Alice did not like her dolls, but their ownership and disposition were an unassailable right, and the teapot had once belonged to her mother. The chair on which Nell sat had been hand-carved and gilded especially for Alice in the shape of a throne.
Father stared at daughter with eyes grown rapturous by love
“I do not give you permission to play with my toys,” Alice said grandly and kicked the shabbiest of the dolls so that all of the dolls toppled one over the next like dominos, and Uncle Nell’s teacup shattered on the floor.
“Oh, Alice,” Auntie Bye said again. Uncle Nell leapt to his feet. Cousin Nell crept off the throne and began collecting the pieces of the broken china, furtively trying to fit them together.
This was the other disagreeable thing about Alice’s cousin. Her father was a handsome man; her mother, Mrs. Ludlow Hall’s dead daughter, was said to have been the most beautiful debutante of the ’81 season; so lovely, Bliss Baker had wanted to paint her.
But Nell looked like a toad. Her eyes bulged from their sockets like a gargoyle’s. Her teeth protruded from her mouth like a beaver’s. Though her movements were nervous and awkward, her speech was deliberate: She hardly ever spoke unless there was something she particularly wanted to say, and then her voice had the nasal intonation of an old biddy five times her age.
Alice was beautiful. She’d always been told she was beautiful, but she knew she would have known even had she never been told. She was beautiful. Nell was hideous. And yet the two cousins, who were the same age, whose mothers were both dead, looked alike. How could that be?
“I shall not share my room with her,” Alice announced when she rejoined the others in Papa’s study.
Edith—who approached domestic insurrections in the spirit of a military commander whose genius lay in knowing which battles were important and which were not—merely raised her eyebrows. And a bed was made up for Nell in little Ethel’s room.
The visit was not a success. Papa had devised a roster of entertainments for the children; Papa’s children knew better than to complain.
But Cousin Nell with her pained eyes, her diffident voice, her habit of putting her hand in front of her mouth when she spoke as though this might disguise her ugly protruding teeth— though it only it made it even more difficult to hear a single word she said—Cousin Nell had been so obviously intimidated by the physical nature of Papa’s entertainments and by her rough-and-tumble cousins that it drained all the fun out of the holiday traditions and games.
A regular Elsie Dinsmore, thought Alice.
Independence Day was celebrated with a familiar assortment of activities. The children organized a parade. Clad in two of her stepmother’s old petticoats, dyed blue for the occasion, Alice posed as the Spirit of Liberty. After the parade, came luncheon. Papa rose from the luncheon table (cold boiled ham, cold roast poultry; multiple dishes of lobster salad, chicken salad, and pickles) to recite his favorite poem:
Take up the White Man’s burden,
“A toast to Mister Rudyard Kipling!” thundered Papa. “And to all good men who are called upon to sacrifice the joys of home and hearth for the great leap forward.”
“Hear, hear!” laughed Uncle Nell, hoisting his glass.
Papa shot Uncle Nell a glowering glance, then continued. “Nevertheless, we must view the subjugated barbarian with compassion. For while it is right and just that a superior race should usher in progress, nonetheless this vigorous birth of a new order is inevitably accompanied by the death pangs of the race supplanted to whom we ought show mercy.”
Papa’s oratorical eloquence was met with a spontaneous wave of applause from the adults at the table and a new round of toasts. Papa even poured a small amount of wine into a glass, diluted it with water, and gave it to Alice. She liked it; she wanted more. Edith frowned at Papa and shook her head, almost imperceptibly.
Edith couldn’t deny Uncle Nell the opportunity to toast, however, and Uncle Nell seized that opportunity merrily to propose ever more salutations. To Edith. To Auntie Bye. To Alice. To Uncle Elliott’s own dead wife who had shed the mortal coil but two years earlier. To Papa’s dead wife, Alice’s mother, who had died long ago before Alice had even had the chance to remember her. (Edith froze; Papa scowled.) To the United States of America. With every improvised homage, Uncle Nell grew jollier and louder.
For the afternoon, a swimming expedition to the old Mill Pond had been organized.
“Drive us in your motor car, Uncle Nell!” cried Ted.
“That would be inadvisable,” said Papa.
“Did your motor car cost a lot of money?” asked Kermit.
“Kermit,” his mother said in a warning tone.
“Well, if it did, I want to know. For when I am grown, I shall want a motorcar, too. If I need to be rich, I must know. Perhaps I shall marry Cousin Nell. She is quite rich.”
“You rascal,” said Papa, and he laughed.
“I am richer than Cousin Nell,” Alice said. And this was true. For her dead mother had been a very rich woman while Nell’s dead mother had been practically a pauper.
It was very hot at the pond. Insects buzzed in the reeds. In his black bathing costume, Papa’s burly chest and overdeveloped arms looked comical. Where Papa was grim determinism, battering the water into submission, Uncle Nell glided through the pool with ease as though the aqueous milieu was his natural element.
Alice liked to swim, and was good at it. Of course, Cousin Nell could only be cajoled into the water with great difficulty. She could not swim; her father wanted to teach her. The pond was an old glacial deposit without much ledge. Almost immediately, Nell went under, and when five seconds had passed, and she still had not come up, her father dived into the water. A perfect tuck! When he emerged, Nell was limp and gasping in his arms.
“Now, see what you’ve done!” Papa thundered.
“Do stop orchestrating, Teedie,” Edith said wearily. “The child is unused to water. It is not serious. She ought to learn to swim. Now, though, perhaps she ought to go back into the house. Perhaps we all ought to go back inside the house. It has been a long day.”
Uncle Nell hoisted his daughter into his arms and carried her off to the nursery. Auntie Bye herded the rest of the children into the drawing room where the piano had just been tuned.
“You shall play, and we shall sing,” said Auntie Bye to Alice. “Patriotic songs. Hail Columbia!”
“I do not know Hail Columbia by heart,” Alice said.
“Then fetch the sheet music from the nursery,” said Auntie Bye.
Needs must. Alice looked forward to the time when she’d be all grown up, and needs wouldn’t ever again. She bounded up the oak staircase that led to the second floor and pushed the door to the nursery open.
There sat Cousin Nell. Once again, she’d usurped Alice’s throne-shaped chair. Her wet hair was down, drying on her shoulders. It was the same golden color as Alice’s own hair, and it fell in ringlets around Nell’s naked neck and shoulders. Her bubbies were indecently naked, larger than Alice’s own. (Alice had peeked in her vanity mirror though it was forbidden.) Nell’s feet and legs were bare, too; her skirts and petticoat pushed up all the way up to her thighs. On the floor in front of her kneeled her father. His daughter’s toes were in his mouth. His eyes were closed. He made slurping noises, and he swayed a little from side to side as he gobbled at his daughter’s feet.
He didn’t see Alice. But Nell’s eyes were wide open. She met Alice’s shocked stare with an unwavering gaze. She tilted her chin, squared her shoulders, coolly staring at her cousin until the other girl flushed furiously and backed out of the room.
Alice told no one what she had seen—what had she seen? Who would she tell?
But somebody else must have seen the clandestine pair or sensed that something reprehensible was on the brink of happening. For the next morning, Alice heard a put-put-put outside her window. She leaped from her bed. Pushed aside the curtains. The sun had just begun to brighten the landscape, but the vehicle with its canvas canopy was making its way away from Sagamore Hill over the rutted carriage path.
“Half-rats, that one was” Alice overheard Mary Sweeney tell Cook in the kitchen where Edith had dispatched her to see about Papa’s marmalade. “And he wouldna had found them ‘cept the girl left a satchel in the coach and Mrs. Ludlow Hall was so particular about the girl’s luggage.”
“That’s twice now Penfield’s saved her from him. Once when she was left with the dogs, and now this –“
Alice cleared her throat. “Of whom are you speaking?”
Mary Sweeney stared down her narrow nose at the girl. “Why of my grandfather’s horse, that’s whom. And whom had more sense in his one hoof than a certain podsnappish girl of my acquaintance.”
Five weeks later, Uncle Nell was dead.
Finishing the story. The story will be updated on a daily basis at mallorys-camera.livejournal.com
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