Stand Alone

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chapter 1

drop cap sHE AWOKE IN THE dim light of dawn. Everything around her was quiet. There were distant sounds; a television game show, raised voices, the sounds of traffic. But in her cocoon, there was nothing. No movement. No breathing. Just silence.

She pulled the blanket off, bunching it in a ball at her chest and pressing it to her face for comfort. Even though there was no one around, there was a presence. She was afraid. A dark sense of dread squeezed her stomach and made it difficult to breathe, forcing her to take short, shallow breaths. She tried to keep her breathing quiet. Not to let the presence know that she was there. If anyone knew that she was there, something awful would happen. She didn’t identify in her mind what the something was, but the intense anxiety and anticipation made her heart thump loud and fast. She cuddled the blanket to her face for a couple more minutes. Then she finally pushed it away and started to move. She crept along the floor, senses alert. The apartment was dim. Rank smells seemed to slice right into her forehead, but there was nothing to be done about them.

Hunger grew inside her. She sobbed a little with the pain and the urgency of it. There was nothing to eat. Footsteps thumped down the hallway outside, and she froze and waited. They didn’t stop at the door. They didn’t come in. She resumed her trek, crawling, inching across the floor. It took ages to get from one side to the other. She was weak and had to stop to rest frequently. At every noise, every scrape of a shoe or creak of the building, she stopped and listened, waiting for the end. Waiting for pain. Dreading the worst.

She used a cup to dip water from the bowl. It was cold and flat and nasty tasting, but that had long since ceased to matter. It cooled her parched lips. Soothed her aching throat. Filled her hard, empty belly. She gasped for breath between each cup full, out of breath with the urgency of filling her stomach, even though the water wouldn’t keep her satisfied for long. Then she lay down and curled up, eyes heavy.

There was a loud pounding on the door that awoke Justine with a start. She sat up, gasping in surprise. She stared at her bedroom door for a minute, disoriented, trying to figure out where she was and to separate dream from reality. Again a knocking, and her mother’s exasperated voice.

“Justine! Wake up! It’s time for school!”

“I’m up already,” Justine yelled back, her disorientation and the fear from her interrupted dream fueling her anger. “Leave me alone!”

“You’d better be showered and dressed in ten minutes.”

“I don’t think so,” Justine muttered under her breath. Em was always trying to rush her.

She lay there in the warm, soft bed for a few minutes, closing her eyes and trying to remember the details of the dream. She had this dream, or similar ones, often. She hated going to sleep at night, knowing that she might dream. She would dream it again and again, all night long. When she woke up in the morning, it would still be there, on the edges of her consciousness. Justine would be tired and drag through the morning at school, struggling to focus on the mundane tasks the teachers set her. Pointless, useless stuff. So why was she trying to remember the details? To feel the way that she felt in the dream? If it was a nightmare that she avoided when relegated to bed every night, why was she seeking it now? It didn’t make sense. But it was a part of her. Part of who she was, and she didn’t understand it. She wanted to understand herself, understand where all of these feelings and dreams came from.

She was sort of dozing, drifting off to sleep again, starting to approach the edges of the dream. Disjointed images flashed through her mind, just out of her reach, just beyond her ability to comprehend and string them together.

“Justine!” Em shrieked, and the pounding on the door renewed.

“I told you I’m up!” Justine shouted through the door. She threw off her blanket and left it in an untidy heap on the bed. “I’m out of bed, so you can quit harassing me!”

“You’re going to be late for school. And you’re going to make me late for work!”

“I don’t care!” Justine snapped.

“Justine!” Her mother’s voice was filled with frustration and barely-controlled fury. “Get your butt out here! Now!”

Justine smiled in grim satisfaction at her mother’s anger. It served Em right for being so tyrannical. Justine kicked at the clothes piled around the bed. Something for school. She fished out a worn pair of wide legged jeans. They were reasonably clean. The administration was bound to get after her for the holes in the knees, but Justine didn’t care. She pulled off the ratty sweatpants and t-shirt that she had worn to bed. She put it on, and looked for a shirt. A wrinkled, long-sleeved blouse sufficed. There was a splash of tomato sauce on the front, but it would wash out if she bothered to dab it with a cloth. Justine left it untucked and grabbed her favorite hat from the pegs on the back of the door. Crocheted, with a visor that shadowed her face and made her look something like a villain out of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. She pulled it on over her head. Then she exited her room.

Em came out of the kitchen and looked at her when she heard Justine come down the stairs.

“Justine,” her voice was heavy with disapproval. “You can’t go to school looking like that.”

“What’s wrong with it?” Justine challenged. “I’ll get the spot out. No one cares what I look like.”

“You should care what you look like. This is just  … you look like you’ve been sleeping in that for a week. People will think I can’t take care of you properly.”

“Well, you can’t,” Justine pointed out.

“You didn’t shower.”

“No. I’m late, I don’t have time.”

“When is the last time you had a shower?” Em persisted.

“I don’t know. A couple of days.” Justine shrugged it off.

“The kids at school will be complaining that you stink. You’ll get a reputation. You don’t want everyone to think that you smell bad. No one will want to be around you.”

“That’s just fine with me,” Justine said flatly. She didn’t need anyone else. They could just keep their distance.

She pushed past her mother and opened the fridge, looking for something to snatch before school.

“Sit down and eat a good breakfast,” Em said firmly. “Do you want cereal? Eggs? Toast?”

Justine surfaced from the fridge with a slice of pizza and a bottle of juice.

“I don’t have time to sit down,” she said, “and you’d better get to work,” she looked pointedly at the clock, “or you’re going to be late.”

Em looked at the clock, well aware of how late it was getting, and looked back at her daughter.

“You’ll get straight off to school?” she verified.

“Yeah,” Justine swigged the juice directly from the bottle. Em hated that. Justine watched to see her cringe. “I’m going right now.”

“I don’t want to get a call that you’re tardy or absent. Comb your hair before you go,” Em directed, inching closer to the door. She grabbed her briefcase off of the table.

Justine rolled her neck, ignoring the instruction, and took a big bite of the pizza.

“Love you,” Em declared, and darted out the door.

At least she hadn’t tried to kiss Justine this time. Justine leaned against the counter, eating her pizza. She was in no great hurry to get off to school. She watched Em pull her car out of the driveway and get on her way. Justine ate the pizza and drank the juice at a leisurely pace. She put down the half-empty juice container on the table and left it there.

Justine went to the bathroom and looked herself over in the mirror. She was glad she didn’t resemble her mother. Em was a dark blond, pert, pretty, a neat little package. Em liked to look good. She didn’t like the increasing appearance of wrinkles and frown lines on her face, and blamed them on Justine. She’d never had wrinkles before Justine. Or gray in her hair. She often looked tired now, and sometimes couldn’t even rally the energy to fight with Justine.

Justine, on the other hand, had long, thick masses of dark brown hair. Her eyes were blue, but a deep, sparkling blue. Not Em’s pale, watery blue eyes. Her hands and feet were big, almost masculine, and her long, lean legs put her a couple of inches over Em’s height already. Justine supposed she got her physical features from her father, whoever he was. Or maybe there was another mother out there, one who did look like her. One that Em kept a secret from her.

Justine’s hair was in a long braid for sleep, the only way she could keep her tresses in order for the day. It sure beat out having to shampoo, condition, comb, and blow-dry every day. But Justine hadn’t taken any particular care in putting it up, and a number of tendrils had escaped the braid and hung in disorderly waves around her face. Justine removed the elastic from the end of the braid and started to work the hair loose, unraveling the braid and running her fingers through it to arrange it around her face and down her back. Good enough. She didn’t bother to comb it as Em had suggested. She dabbed at the spaghetti sauce on her shirt and got most of it out, leaving just a faint orange stain behind. Justine splashed some water on her face, rubbed deodorant in her pits, and headed out of the house.

She grabbed her long board at the front door. After descending the front steps, she put the board down, stepped onto it, and transformed. With the wind streaming her hair back behind her, Justine felt the negative feelings drop away from her. She was free. She was no longer Justine, Em’s daughter. She no longer even felt earthbound. It was as if the rushing wind filled Justine up like a balloon, lifting her up, letting her fly in the sky above the city. She blew out her breath slowly, savoring the brief moments of freedom.

The ride to school didn’t take long enough. Justine wished she had a couple more hours to just ride, letting the wind fill her and giving her warmed up muscles time to loosen and relax. Riding her board always felt like an escape. Skating was one of her only real joys. She kept riding after turning off of the city sidewalk onto the school sidewalk. Mr. Berkoff, the school janitor, was methodically picking up garbage from the grounds, and yelled at her.

“Get off the board!” he shouted. “You know there are no boards allowed on school grounds!”

“I’m not hurting anything,” Justine growled. But she did step off of her board and flipped it up into her hand. “I don’t see why they’re not allowed.”

“You could knock someone down,” Berkoff told her, starting to count the points off on his fingers. “You could damage school property. It’s disruptive to the students who are already in class  … unlike you, who can’t seem to remember what time the bell rings.”

“Maybe I don’t have a first period class,” Justine said with a smile. “Maybe I have a spare.”

“You don’t have a spare,” Berkoff asserted.

It wasn’t like he was in administration. It wasn’t like he knew what her class schedule was. He was only guessing. Trying to look smart when he really wasn’t. All he knew was picking up trash. Justine gave him a mocking, superior smile, and went into the school. Once inside the school, she considered putting the board back down again and skating to her locker. But if she got caught, and chances were that she would, the consequences would be severe. She didn’t feel like staying after school in detention. She didn’t want to spend any more time there than she had to.

When Justine reached her locker, she stowed her board away, and pulled out the hodgepodge of books that she would need for her morning classes. She pulled out her phone to check the time. She wasn’t that late, only ten minutes past first period bell. She’d still be able to make most of the class.

“Miss Bywater,” a disapproving voice said, “you are rather late.”

Justine turned around to look at the vice principal. Mr. Johnson was tall and thin like a scarecrow. He looked slightly rumpled, as if he too had been late and had to run to get to his office in time. His thinning hair and wire rim glasses made him look older than he probably really was. He passed a hand over his forehead to wipe the glistening sweat away. Justine gave him a tentative smile.

“Sorry, Mr. Johnson,” she apologized in a voice that she hoped sounded sincere, “I guess I slept through the alarm after being up so late cleaning last night, and my mom wasn’t around to wake me up. I got here as soon as I could.”

“I don’t want to hear excuses,” Mr. Johnson said primly, smoothing his jacket with both hands. “It’s not the first time that you’ve been late. You’re a big girl now, nearly an adult. You shouldn’t have to be told by someone else that it is time to get up. You can take the responsibility of getting yourself up on time.”

“I know. And I usually do,” Justine said earnestly. “It was just this one time. My alarm was set, but I was really tired  …”

“Then go to bed earlier,” he said, shaking his head and looking at her over the top of the rims.

Justine turned off her smile. She blinked her eyes rapidly and rolled them up toward the ceiling like she was fighting tears.

“I had to work  … but  … yes, Mr. Johnson.”

“You’re a smart girl,” Mr. Johnson said, his tone a bit more conciliatory now. “I don’t want to see you going down the slippery slope to drop out. You have promise. But you have to be here, and you have to be here on time. When you’re an adult, you’ll be expected to get yourself to work on time.”

“Yes, sir,” Justine agreed.

He looked at his hands, seemingly at a loss as to what to say next.

“Please work on it,” he said finally.

“Okay. I will.”

Mr. Johnson nodded briefly, and withdrew. Justine watched him walk away, retreating down the hall and around the corner.

“Old goat,” Justine muttered.

She closed the door on the locker and attached her lock, snapping it shut. Glancing at her phone again, she headed for her first period class. Now, later than ever. Mr. Johnson wanted her to get to class on time, but he kept her talking in the hallway when she should be running to get to class? What kind of sense did that make? Justine slipped into her classroom and glanced around. The teacher’s back was turned as he wrote on the board, and Justine tip-toed to her desk and sat down. When the teacher turned back around to continue the lecture, his eyes landed on her, and he studied her with a frown.

“Tardy, Miss Bywater.”

“Yes, sir,” Justine agreed, head down. “I already talked to Mr. Johnson about it.”

He was silent for a moment, then returned to his lecture. Justine let out her breath and opened up her books.

Lunchtime seemed to take forever to arrive, but finally the bell rang, and the crowds of students thronged the hall, talking and horsing around, hurrying back to their lockers and then out to lunch or down to the cafeteria to eat. Justine dumped her books in her locker and grabbed her board. She stood in line in the cafeteria, fidgeting with her board at her side. She was starving and impatient to get her food. There were a couple of girls that Justine knew standing behind her in line, and Justine could hear them discussing back and forth what to get. Both wanted big burritos, but didn’t have enough money to get them. She turned around and looked at them.

“I’ll get you the burritos,” she offered. “You want them?”

Macy and Darlene exchanged glances, and then looked at her.

“What?” Darlene questioned. “Are you talking to us?”

“Yeah. You want the burritos? I’ll buy them for you.”

Justine couldn’t stand the thought of someone going hungry.

“We don’t need you to buy things for us,” Macy assured her.

Justine shrugged and went on. She put three burritos on her tray, and a chocolate milk. If the girls were watching her choices, they didn’t have anything to say about it. At the till, Justine paid for the meals. Macy and Darlene checked out behind her. Justine turned around and presented the girls with a burrito each, putting them on the girls’ trays.

“Where did you get all the money?” Darlene challenged, staring pointedly at Justine’s worn, thrift store clothes.

“I won it,” Justine lied, “in a bet.”

Darlene rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“You did not.”

Justine shrugged.

“So, you wanted them, right? And I got them for you.”

Darlene nodded.

“You’re still not sitting with us,” Macy sneered.

Justine felt her face freeze into a mask. She bought them lunch, so they wouldn’t have to go hungry, and they were still going to act like she had the plague? They could eat her food, but they couldn’t sit at the same table as her?

“I’m not eating here anyway,” Justine said scathingly. “Why would I want to eat with you?”

Justine whirled around, and walked away. She disposed of her tray, taking just her own burrito and chocolate milk. She strode out of the cafeteria and out of the school. She was seething over the slight by the two girls. But why did she even care? It wasn’t like she even liked them. She didn’t care what anyone at school thought of her. She didn’t need to sit with anyone at school. She was a big girl, independent, tough. She didn’t need to sit with friends like a kindergartner. Justine put down her board and stepped on, and zipped quickly down the sidewalks. The air streamed by her face, her hair streamed behind her like a ribbon, and her heart pounded as she kicked the board faster. Those girls were nothing. Could they skate? Could they do anything but put on their morning makeup so heavy that they looked like hookers? Why would she want to have anything to do with them?

After a while, Justine slowed down. She continued to skate at a walking pace, eating her burrito. The big burritos were legendary at the school, and though they were well-wrapped in plastic, they were messy to eat. Even though Justine was careful, it leaked, and her semi-clean shirt was again stained. How did anyone eat those things without wearing it? What Justine wouldn’t have given to see Darlene and Macy trying to eat their burritos, neat and dainty, touching the corners of their mouths with their napkins. With their figures, she was amazed that they would consider eating those burritos anyway. A salad would be too fattening. A thought occurred to Justine. What if they had been talking just to see what her reaction would be? Maybe they didn’t actually want the burritos after all, they just wanted to see how she would react, if she would step in and make a fool of herself by buying them something they would never even consider eating. Justine felt her face flush, and her heart started to pound again, with anger instead of exertion. They had just been messing with her? They just wanted to see if she would spend her money on them? Waste it? Show interest in being friends with them so that they could make fun of her yet again? Justine was so angry that she slammed the last half of her burrito in a garbage can as she rode past. Her blood boiled.

She took a lap around the pond, blowing past the dog walkers and women pushing strollers. They gave her irritated looks, but no one told her that she had to stay out of the park. She went down one of her favorite hills, and did some half-hearted jumps. Then it was time to be back at school again. Justine returned to her locker before the bell rang, not wanting to get singled out for being tardy twice in the same day. She walked past Macy and Darlene, who whispered and giggled to each other, eying Justine as she walked past them.

In math, Megan turned around when Justine sat down. She gave Justine a friendly smile. Megan had short hair and round black-framed glasses that Justine thought made Megan look sort of like Velma on Scooby Doo. All she needed was an orange sweater.

“Hey, Justine.”

Justine nodded, not smiling back.

“Hey,” she acknowledged curtly, and opened her books.

“You okay?” Megan questioned.

“Fine, Why?”

“I dunno, you just look like you’re upset or something. I’m just asking.”

“Just leave me alone,” Justine growled. “I’m fine.”

Megan turned back around. Phillip was turned around in front of Megan, and said something to her. Megan shook her head and they put their heads together and talked quietly for a moment, both of them looking back at Justine during the conversation. Justine couldn’t hear what they were saying about her, but near the end of the conversation, she heard a name that stabbed her in the heart. ‘Christian’. Megan cast one more pitying glance at Justine and faced the front as the teacher started the class. Justine put her face down in her folded arms, closing her eyes, the painful memories washing over her. Her heart ached.

After school, Justine headed home to grab a snack. She was tired and stressed out and just felt like vegging in front of the TV with her favorite junk food. But as she skated up to the house, she saw that Em’s car was already parked out in front. She had gotten out of work early, or else brought her work home with her to continue to work on. Neither one boded well for Justine. There would be no time to herself to relax with Em home.

With a deep breath and a sigh, Justine opened the front door and clomped into the house. Em looked up from her papers spread over the kitchen table.

“Hi, sweetie,” she greeted cheerfully. “How was school today?”

Justine rolled her eyes and cut through the dining room into the kitchen.

“Just need something to eat,” she said.

“I already got something ready for you. I know how hungry you are when you get home from school.”

Justine looked at the plate of cut-up apples and glass of milk on the kitchen island.

“Seriously?” she breathed. What was she, five? She stuck her head into the fridge and looked around. Em had obviously already cleaned it out. The rest of the leftover pizza was gone. So was the mac and cheese Justine had made the previous day. Justine moved on to the cupboards, pushing around boxes of cereal and various dry goods. Em’s purge of the kitchen had failed to find a bag of chips that Justine had stashed. Justine pulled them out and unrolled the top of the bag to dig in. No pop or chocolate milk in the fridge. But Em wasn’t able to give up her daily cup of coffee, so that was still available, and Justine put a cup in to brew.

Em came into the kitchen a few minutes later, probably smelling the coffee, and looked at Justine eating her chips and drinking her espresso.

“Justine! We’re trying to eat healthy! You can’t have that!”

“I can have what I want,” Justine told her, cramming another handful of chips in her mouth, just in case Em decided to try to take them away from her.

“No, you can’t eat just whatever you want. It’s bad for your body, and it’s bad for your mood and for your brain. We agreed that we needed to start eating healthier, and to clean up all of this junk in your diet. Dr. Morton says  …”

“I never agreed to anything,” Justine cut in. “You and Dr. Morton decided all this, not me. I never agreed to give up my food and start eating salads and crap. And you can’t make me.”

“Healthy body, healthy mind,” Em lectured. “There have been studies that show that with nutritional and biomedical treatments, you can change the chemicals in the brain  …”

“I’m not a lab rat,” Justine snapped. “You can’t experiment on my brain!”

Em laughed.

“We want you to feel better. We want you to feel like you are safe, to be happy  …”

“You don’t make me feel safe by messing with my brain. I don’t want you to change my brain!”

Justine was sure that if Em could get Dr. Morton to agree with her, she’d be hooking up electrodes to Justine’s head.

“It’s not like we’re operating on you, or injecting you with noxious chemicals, or even trying more prescription drugs. We’re just talking about eating healthy, nourishing your body. Maybe when you were sick as a baby, your body and brain didn’t get everything they needed. Maybe with the trauma, the nutrients that were depleted when you were sick, maybe way back then, that changed things, so  …”

She trailed off. Justine stared at Em, deliberately crunching the chips. She washed them down with another swig of coffee.

“You can’t make me,” she repeated.

“If I only buy healthy food, and that’s all that’s around the house  …”

Justine filled her mouth with a large handful of chips and chewed them, her cheeks bulging. Em breathed out in frustration, and threw her hands up in disgust. She turned and walked out of the room. Justine nodded to herself and washed the lump of chips down.

“Don’t mess with my food,” she said to the silence of the room. “I’m not gonna let you starve me.”

Em left her in peace for a while, and Justine went up to her room to look at her homework. But then Em was there, opening her door suddenly without knocking and intruding on Justine’s sanctum. It made Justine jump, and the burst of adrenaline instantly made her angry.

“Get out of here!” Justine shouted, hurting her throat with the violence of the scream. “You can’t come in here like that! Dr. Morton said you have to respect my privacy!”

Em’s face was set grimly. Her lips were pressed together in a thin line, and Justine found herself glancing around for escape routes. Em was upset about something, and if Justine had somehow pushed her over the line  …

“Where is the money that was in my purse?” Em snapped out.

Justine forced herself to assume a casual, unworried attitude, lounging back on her bed and shrugging widely.

“I don’t know. Where is the money that was in your purse?” she questioned.

“You stole it from me. You went through my purse and you stole my money!”

Justine raised her brows.

“Why would I do something like that?”

“Because you’re an ungrateful sneak! I can’t believe that after all I have gone through to help you, to provide for you, to try to raise you and make you feel safe, you steal from me! Why, Justine?” she demanded, her voice screeching upward.

Justine winced at her rising tone.

“Seriously?” she said. “You’re going to get all over my back because you misplaced your money? Nice parenting, Em.”

“You stole it!”

“Prove it,” Justine said calmly, eyes wide and innocent.

Em stared at her, eyes bright with fury. Justine struggled to keep her anxiety from showing.

“I know you stole it, and you know you stole it. This isn’t a court. This isn’t about proof. This is about you violating my space and stealing my money.”

“Well, if you’re so sure I stole your money, what are you going to do about it?” Justine challenged.

Em’s brows drew down fiercely.

“You’re grounded, for one. And I’m going to talk to Dr. Morton about this. You’re going to have to do chores to work this off.”

“Oh, you’re going to tattle to Dr. Morton?”

“I’m looking for a way to help you, Justine!”

“Talking to that quack doesn’t help me. Has he been able to help me in the last ten years?”

Em looked at her for a moment, the angry look starting to fade.

“I think he was helping you for a while there,” she said slowly, “but then  …”

Justine’s anger rose at the insinuation that she was sick and they could make her better.

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she challenged. “You’re the one with something wrong with you. You think you can just order me around and if I’m not a nice compliant child, that there must be something wrong with my brain. And Dr. Morton is happy to take your money for you and to keep telling you how messed up my brain is. It’s a scam, Em. He’s just a quack. All of those stupid therapies—holding time, play therapy, the stupid dog training tricks—you think that you can change me, but you can’t!” Em opened her mouth to interject something, and Justine shouted over her. “You can’t!”

“You were starting to do better,” Em pointed out. “You and I were starting to be able to get along better, to have a relationship. And then  …” she shook her head, eyes teary. “What happened, Justine?”

“Nothing happened,” Justine said firmly, staring her directly in the eyes. Em opened her mouth. “Nothing happened,” she repeated again, her voice harsh, her throat sore from shouting. “Nothing.”

Em shook her head. Her eyes were sad, the rage over the stolen money gone. She had that loving, pitying look that made Justine feel trapped. Em came across the room, and Justine shrank back, not because she was afraid of being hit, but because she knew what was coming.

“Don’t touch me,” she warned.

Em sat down on the bed and put her arm around Justine. Justine stiffened, and didn’t return the gesture.

“I love you, Justine.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I’m your mother. You’re my baby. And no matter how much you try to push me away, I still love you.”

Em’s grip tightened, and she rocked slightly. Justine squirmed in her grip.

“I’m not a baby any more,” Justine protested. “You can’t hold me!”

“You’re still my daughter. I still love you. And I know that you need hugs, even if you tell me you don’t.”

Justine pushed her away, squirming out of her grip.

“Just keep your hands to yourself,” she objected, “or I’ll call Child Protective Services.”

“And tell them that I gave you a hug?” Em questioned with a short laugh.

“And tell them that you touched me when I said no and made me feel uncomfortable. You’re not allowed to touch me like that. I know my rights. I don’t have to let anyone hug me or touch me. Not even you.”

Em’s expression darkened, and Justine knew that she had struck home. But Em remained calm and firm. She would have made Dr. Morton proud. She forced a plastic smile, love no longer shining in her eyes.

“As soon as Child Services talked to Dr. Morton, they would understand. Nothing would happen,” Em said with studied unconcern.

They both stared at each other, daring the other to make a move. Eventually, Em stood up and headed out the door.

“You’re grounded,” she reminded Justine as she retreated. She pulled the door shut behind her.

Justine sat looking at the closed door, and swore at Em under her breath.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Stand Alone

By P.D. Workman

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