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December 2013: UNDERGROUND

Claire Benyon facebook Sept 5
Claire Beynon is an artist, writer and independent researcher based in Dunedin and drawn increasingly to interdisciplinary work. Antarctica has her under its spell; two summer research seasons with US scientists significantly altered her way of seeing and being in the world. In 2008 Claire created a flotilla of paper and bamboo boats that became the leading characters in a series of short ArtScience vids filmed in and around Antarctica. Nearly 2000 paper boats later, these flimsy-yet-resilient vessels have become an enduring motif in her work. Above is her photograph, ‘Waterborne’. More here. 

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Kim Thomas, Couples

You are impinging on my space she said this morning, slopping coffee on the duvet as she turned and her voice quickened. There had been no clumsy prior attempt at marital relations, no acidic rebuff, just two weary souls, each awakening to replays of their own plaintive dreams. After thirty years of marriage I resisted saying that I wasn’t sure whether to reach for her dictionary or for my suitcase. I promised, not for the first time, to stop the spread of my stuff around the house. Never-ending, affects us all she continued. A mess allows for exciting discoveries I muttered.

You might think I believe in chaotic relationships, but I don’t. Give and take, compromise, endless compromises I say. Give me the house and I’ll use all of it. Give her the bed and the duvet soon touches the floor on her side. Unlimited joint access to wallet and purse, keys and so much more. I am no longer irritated by her Nora Jones CDs or by the way she holds her fork. Each night our exhausted bodies lay down to sleep on bloodless sheets, seldom the sexual battlefield they once were. Now, shared memories connect us more than plans seldom mentioned.

Our eldest, Nicholas, rang minutes ago to say he had moved out and was living in a motel. Sam wants him back but he can no longer handle her sudden mood swings. He doesn’t know what to do about the kids. What could I possibly say.

Kim Thomas is a bloke – let’s get that clear — although was once asked, in writing, by his doctor’s receptionist to make an appointment for a cervical smear test. Usually most accommodating, he politely declined on that occasion. He recently rekindled a long smouldering interest in creative writing. A growing weariness with his profession – the law – has had something to do with that.

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Raewyn Alexander, Rainy Blue

She’d murmur, “You reading fancy wancy novels. And at that townie cinema. Films! Unreal! Abide in the world as it is. Learn to face trouble squarely.” My grandmother also told me I wouldn’t be able to bear life’s inevitable disappointments.

An empty chair beside me in the kitchen now, our farmhouse soon to be only mine. Rain falling. Me wishing someone would burst in with great news, like sunshine.

Should I check our cows before the service? My horse Brandy preferred warmer days. Tears slide into my mouth, salty. “Take things with a grain of salt.” My grandmother swooped across the sky, she fell with the storm, ballooned about our house.

Grandma also believed forget-me-nots on my second-best dress made my eyes appear even bluer. A hole near the hem today, I notice. In the sewing room, I wonder about loved ones gone, and how disappointment gnaws away, making thoughts raggedy. Time mends loss. Time developed substance? Devised to make the wild world seem controllable, time stitches up rips? I laugh, like a sob. Do passing weeks diminish seemingly infinite sadness when nothing ever matches my imagination? Me meanwhile stitching a patch the shape of a quail’s egg.

Sun streams through the window. My hand rises and falls with the needle. I wonder what’d hatch next. Brilliant light floods my mind, the shimmering form of my grandmother smiling. Dreams and fancies close by again. My comfort, like old friends.

Raewyn Alexander is a novelist, poet, short story and non-fiction writer. She placed in the top five for the Landfall Essay Competition, 2011. Her book, A Bee Lover’s Poetry Companion, is published through Earl of Seacliff. Her ebook What we Talk about when we Talk about Death, Money and Heart was published by Brightspark Books, and Staples – recipes, hints, poetry is a book inspired by her status updates online (Brightspark Books, 2013).You can read more about her here.

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D R Jones, Subnormal

Ted and Dorothy habitually occupy their Foxton home’s sitting room. The mantle clock ticks and rain ticks against fogged windows. At the table Dot, younger, plays Patience. Ted snoozes in his wingback, unaware of time, and on the floor, Oscar, a great-great-nephew visiting from Napier, tires of Star Wars figurines.

“Tell me story!” he explodes, startling Ted, whose heart worries Dot.

“That’s six today,” Ted rasps. “Two more than your years. One fourteenth of mine,” he adds.

Oscar scrambles onto the lanky man’s knee, assumes there’s a seventh.

“Have I told you of Timbuktu?”

“Yes. You buried in sand.”

Ted shudders at the idea.

“My Siberian sojourn?”

“Stuck in a igloo.”

Ted winces.

“My Bolivian expedition?”

“No! Tell!”

“Many moons ago, the world of spelunking ambushed an acrophillic funambulist, spawned a subterranean potholer.”

Ted yarns for a time, then nods at the wartime photo beside the clock.

“Unearths things about yourself, three years in a trench. Gets under your skin, shell-shocks you, they say.” His heart races.

“Now all I’m under is the weather, boy,” he says.

“You’re scaring him, again,” Dot chides. It’s a familiar ending.

“Nonsense. He doesn’t understand the words.”

Ted’s right. But the child loves their sound and feel. They make sense that way.

“Again,” Oscar demands. “Eight.”

“Long ago, my apophenic conspiracy theories proved useful. You know group theory? Your great-great-uncle is subgroup H.” Now, where’s this heading? he wonders, glancing at the photo.

Oscar burrows into Ted, counts the ticks of his heart.

D R Jones is a writer who lives near Puhoi. He has just finished writing the unauthorised autobiography of Anonymous_Author© and has pledged to write using his real name until the fictional literary voice he created has its memoirs published. Patently, judging by the book’s description, he may be submitting as D R Jones for some time.

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Beverley Teague, Forgiveness

Overnight the storm swept in from the northwest. The ranchsliders that enclosed the deck on two sides bore the brunt of the weather. They were covered with muddy splats and olive leaves stuck like random Post-it notes. There was nothing for it. They would have to be cleaned before her book group met after lunch. She went downstairs and heaved the two-step ladder, bucket and cleaning gear up to the living area. If it hadn’t been for Gwen she might not have bothered but she could hear Gwen’s voice crackled with age and querulous “Oh, look at the windows! There’s a job waiting for someone.” She wouldn’t give her the chance. As they say, needs must!

That done, she rested with a cup of tea. The phone rang. She put the receiver back in its cradle. As the line clicked closed she heard a distinct “thump.” Intuitively she looked towards the deck. A blackbird was lying there. She watched. The minutes ticked by. There was not a sign of movement. Wasn’t it written that even the smallest sparrow that fell was not forgotten? Surely a blackbird would be noticed. It was her fault.

She eased the feathery little bundle onto the blue kitchen dustpan and carried it downstairs. She knelt under the olive tree where the ground was thick with leaves, dark and fertile. She dug a small hole and eased the lifeless form into the tenderness of the waiting darkness. Peace filled her heart. She would even forgive Gwen.

Beverley Teague has been a member of a writing group for almost three years, attracted to the group because of her interest in writing poetry. Flash fiction is her most recent discovery, her newest challenge.

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Annette Edwards-Hill, The Rain

It rained, an entire winter, twelve weeks with sport cancelled every day. The second Tuesday in September Mary didn’t wake to the familiar thump of the rain, there was silence, a bird call and clouds scurrying across blue sky. Tom went to school, optimistic, his jacket tucked into his bag. Mary spent three hours in the garden. At five to twelve the postman appeared over the top of the ridge line, heavy in his shoes, his mail bag open, black clouds behind him. “Just one today,” he called. He leaned on the letterbox, ready to rest, to chat. She wished he wouldn’t. It would rain again soon, the garden still ripe with three months of weeds. She held the envelope and touched the return address, the city council. “One of those for every house in the valley today, better get going,” and he was walking away, the thud thud of his feet fading as he disappeared around the corner, into the bush. Mary lifted the corner of the envelope, a letter. The words tumbled in front of her. Thirty years it proposed, thirty years of the city’s rubbish and then playing fields and parks, maybe a shopping centre. Mary stared hard at the letter. Thirty years and Tom would be thirty-nine with no need for parks, swings and slides. Grown up, a wife of his own, children. The grandchildren could visit, play in the park. Mary looked out, bush, more bush, sky, rain. The first drop fell. She went inside.

Annette Edwards-Hill lives in Wellington. She likes many things but most of all she likes words. She completed the Poetry Creative Writing workshop at Victoria University in 1997 and a Masters in Art History at Auckland University with a thesis that was as much to do with James K Baxter as it was Colin McCahon. She has worked as a business analyst for the last eight years but is now trying to balance love and money and dabbles occasionally in some writing.

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Rachel J Fenton, Blue Blood

“Do you know why they call them blue collar workers?” Miss saunters round the class, her long skirt flapping. Still seas make no waves. “Because the dirt won’t show so easily. Teachers, professionals, white collar workers like me don’t get dirty.” She’s wrong about that, riding the equator in the thick of it.

She coils against the sun asking everyone what job their parents have. It’s like that time she rated us by the type of dwelling that we have only she called that geography, too.

This one lad, Dinghy we call him on account of his chapped lips, says, “My dad’s not blue collar, Miss, he’s just blue.”

In spite of the fact we all know, we keep mum.

Miss steers round like a clipper, her eyes shrink into weevils.

“Oh? No?” she mocks, “What is he then, your father? You’re not about to tell us he’s the King?”

Plain as cabin biscuits, Dinghy says,

“No, Miss, my dad’s just dead.”

Miss keels in the belt of calms as the wind departs her denim sail, and for a still second we all think of Dinghy’s dad, well, I do at least, while Miss (head hung in the equatorial doldrums) is dumber than an anchor, than a funeral cortège; and I imagine bone worms crawling through a wooden boat, out of sight, slipping through veins in a rotten face like trains on the Victoria Line deep underground; and me, clawing to get out.

Rachel J Fenton was born in Yorkshire and currently lives in Auckland. She won the University of Plymouth’s 7th Annual Short FICTION Competition in 2013 and was also recently short-listed for the Fish Publishing International Poetry Prize and the Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize. Links to her published works can be found at her blog snow like thought. AKA Rae Joyce, she publishes graphic poetry including Escape Behaviours and the 2012 AUT Creative Writing Prize winning Alchemy Hour.

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Rita Shelley, DownUnder

“Mommy, that lady smells,” said a little girl holding her mother’s hand.

Susan hunched against the bitter wind blowing off the East River. Snippets of songs came to her. “Once I built a railroad. Made it run. Now…” She had juggled money and avoided disaster for so long. She’d felt sure she would the last time too.

“Here you are, dear.” An older lady dropped a handful of coins into her tin.

“Get a job,” a man snarled.

“Honey, I’ve had jobs you’d die for,” Susan thought.

Susan’s last presentation to the board: facial, nails done, full hair deal. She knew her facts and figures inside out. Tan dress with the little jacket from Saks looked like a million bucks. Elegant and fit, she’d had them eating out of her hand. Not illegal like so many others but good strategic sense for the company – until Joe turned them. Good old Joe.

Susan had kept the lady Beretta. The permit for it was still valid. Joe wasn’t though. Good-bye, Joe. She’d seen the flash of recognition in his eyes before he dropped. All over, Rover.

A golden retriever posted himself near Susan while his owner gossiped with another woman, both in their short fur jackets and boots, slurping Starbuck’s. The retriever laid his head on Susan’s foot. Sheba was most likely running around on a farm somewhere upstate Susan told herself once again.

The chatty lady tugged hard on the leash “No, Rover. Bad dog.”

Dr. Rita Shelley, educationalist, grew up in New York City and lived and worked in British Columbia and Idaho. She came to New Zealand to visit family, fell in love and lives permanently in Whangarei with her partner. She’s published academic articles, short stories and slice of life pieces. She relishes flash fiction.

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Emily Seresin, Landlocked

The bleakness of net curtaining on a hotel window bolted shut, and the BBC channel broadcasting news to the adrift. The hotel was on the Buda side, looking over the river to Pest. She told herself it was just the cheap route, but understood she wanted to see him, and more than that the place he had come.

People stood in arched doorways, which towered a dozen feet over their heads. The city looked like it had been abandoned by a species of giant, with just the small people left. She’d visited the museum of the secret police at sixty Andrassy that afternoon, had stood next to an old woman under the curved roof of an underground cell. We used to cross the street when we walked past this place, she had said.

She had arranged to meet him for breakfast.

“How’s your mother?” he asked.

“Good. No relapse.”

She wished she hadn’t looked him up.

“How’s Australia?”

“The whole place. God Peter I don’t know. Hotter – fires started in October this year. You miss it?”

“Some things – couldn’t live there again.”

“Are you so different?”

“I can’t explain. People here live within something – like a physical restraint.”

“You’re in love.”

“That’s beside the point.”

“Horrible thing to say.”

“I can’t listen to people talk about pergolas, and fucking food allergies and shit”

“That’s unfair.”

“Probably, but it’s still an island.”

That night she walked along the river, imagined being thrown in at the muddy edge.

Emily Seresin is a costume designer and has clothed other people’s characters for nearly thirty years. Lately she likes to experiment with characters of her own. She particularly likes it when her characters stay on the page and don’t stomp around the wardrobe truck complaining about itchy socks. Emily grew up in Wellington and now lives in Sydney on the Bankstown line.

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Eileen Merriman, Mind the Gap

Waterloo. A rush of air heralds your arrival. A loudspeaker crackles overhead: mind the gap. I sling my bag over my shoulder and step inside the train. There you are, standing in your usual place at the end of the carriage – cropped brown hair with a curly escape around the base of your neck, laugh lines around your nutmeg eyes. I stand beside you, my hand on the seat in front.

Embankment Station. Mind the gap. The early morning commuters press around us. Snatches of conversation float around like confetti – but I don’t hear them. I’m listening to your breathing. You smell like almonds and spice, as always. A Rolex watch emerges from the sleeve of your pinstriped suit. A gold ring glistens on your left index finger.

Charing Cross. Mind the gap. The crowd reaches a jostling critical mass; there is no personal space in here but ours. Your hand brushes against my leg, a daily accident. The train picks up speed again as it hurtles underground; shadows moving over your face and through your eyes.

Leicester Square. Mind the gap. My body curves against yours, oh so carefully. Your coffee-scented breath percolates over my ear, as your lips shave the side of my neck. The walls are rushing faster now, like time, our time, too brief.

Tottenham Court Road. Your stop. I lower my head, tug on the bottom of my school skirt… and wait for tomorrow.

Mind the gap.

Eileen Merriman lives and works on the North Shore in Auckland and this year was awarded a place in the New Zealand Society of Authors Manuscript Assessment programme. She is currently looking for a publisher for her first novel, and is working on a second.

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Rebecca Simons, Underground

We met underground – that’s what I like to tell people – to see imagination leap-frog from one possibility to another. It would have been seventeen years in April. He told me he couldn’t help it, that he was always collecting strays. He took me by the hand, led me past alleyways and empty doors that for the time being no longer threatened to swallow me whole. I held fast and followed, like a stray dog that sensed a turn of fortune, and never let go. When he unlocked the front door we were greeted by a one-eyed moggy and the smell of cat pee. He looked from me to the wretched cat and back again, and said we made a pair. I’ll never forget the tenderness of touch, seated on the toilet lid, as he cleaned me up like a mother cat with her kitten – it was then that I knew I loved him. He told me, promised, he’d never let go. In the hospital he told me he had always thought of me as his very own fallen angel from the moment he found me crumpled in the urinal, and that he would be mine – God willing – when his time came. I tried to be brave but I’m not. Never have been. When he died I went back to the toilets where it all began, but all I found was a used condom. My life now a complete circle.

Rebecca Simons is an ex-office worker who discovered short story writing while enjoying a mid-life crisis. Although her university years were spent studying European language and culture, she has found an even greater challenge in mastering the use of her maternal language, English, and hopes to continue with this challenge for many years to come.

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Nod Ghosh, Ahu

There was this place we’d go to with Hine and Simon. We’d collect firewood, tangles of kānuka, and find a good spot off the track. Ahu would hold my hand. She’d whisper things in my ear, like how we’d be together for all our tomorrows. Then she’d cling to me like an old blanket – a blanket that you loved.

Now I fan my fingers over this steaming hole in the ground. The place looks different in daylight. Signs warn you not to step off the paths, as you could get swallowed up if the thin crust of earth gives way. I don’t care. I care less about lots of things since Ahu left. She used to walk on the sulphurous rocks with bare feet, said it connected her to the spirits that lived underneath. Her grandma told her the steam was the breath of them spirits. A warm gust makes me gasp and I pull back.

There was a battle here centuries ago. So many dead, they reckoned it looked like sheets of whitebait on the lakeshore. Now an old rubber tyre pokes out of the beaten earth, a grounded eel. And there are the links of a bike chain someone threw out, shining like the nubbins of a snake’s backbone. A stream bubbles away. The smell’s familiar, like your own fart.

Then Ahu’s standing there. I didn’t think she’d come. Her belly’s bulging with someone’s baby. She takes my hand, kisses me, like she’s never been gone.

Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch and has completed year one of the Hagley Writers’ Institute creative writing course. Nod’s work has been accepted in Catalyst, Penduline, Christchurch Press, Takahē and Express. Nod works as a medical laboratory scientist.

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Joyce Elwood-Smith, Underground

Kids’ experiments: slice worms in half, pull wings off butterflies, fry slaters in oil, de-shell snails. All harmless stuff. This was different, however; we vowed secrecy.

The hang-out place for our “gang” was the old cemetery behind the park. Some headstones were impossible to read except for Mister Hayricks Esq. Inscribed thus – “I will return” – that’s all we could read, we took it literally.

We fantasised, took turns lying in wait at midnight… nothing. We borrowed a shovel, chose a moonlit night and, unaware of the figure under the old pine, started digging.

On the full moon we dug again, until the muffled moaning started. Jonno peed his pants. Instinct told us to flee for our lives across the artificial flowers and domed angels, but we stayed rooted to the spot.

When the ground gave way we panicked, but it was too late. The chasm, about twelve feet wide was too deep to climb out of.

“Wonder yoose didn’t break sumfing,” the old man smirked as we struggled up the rope. But he wasn’t letting us off easy. Not that dirty old man. “Wanna see sumfing? Come on in ‘ere wiff me.” He dragged us into a dark shed, “I keeps the good ones,” he cackled. “Swop ’em over, I do.”

We saw the coffin. He made us line-up, look inside. I shut my eyes but he pinched me.

“If I catches ee ‘ere again, I’m gonna put yoose all in a box.”

We scattered, ran like the devil.

Joyce Elwood-Smith’s life was turned upside-down after the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Three years hence, she’s still waiting for her house to be repaired and is temporarily based in Wellington, sometimes house-sitting in Picton. She now has more time to write stories, poems and an occasional blog post for Happyzine.co.nz, and a children’s historical novel is in the pipeline. She sorely misses the sunsets over the Southern Alps.

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Miles Hughes, Landslide

The din on the tin roof is worse than the roar and clank of the bulldozers. The government started the removal of the favela. Now nature is likely to finish the job. Water pours through every gap in the structure thrown together with whatever materials they could find. Rainwater, the colour of dog shit, flows ankle deep over the floor. Esteban and Imelda cling to their children, Joaquin and Bianca. They stare wide-eyed at one another as a tremor passes through the shack. The mudslide in ’86 is engrained on their memories.

It starts as a low rumble, barely discernible above the noise of the rain, then becomes a thunderous roar.

“Get out now!” yells Esteban. Imelda picks up Bianca leaving him to take Joaquin, but it is too late. The walls of the house burst inward as the lahar smashes into it.

Their world becomes a swirling welter of mud, water and debris. Esteban tries to hold Joaquin above him as he is sucked under the mud, but something smashes into his back, driving the air from his lungs. He is vaguely aware of letting go his son as mud and water fill his mouth, nose and ears, then a heavy silence. The only sound is the beat of his heart hammering in his ears. He tries one last time to breathe, but it is no good. He is dimly aware of a stabbing pain in his chest then even the sound of his heartbeat stops.

Miles Hughes is an Auckland fiction writer. In 2009, he graduated with a Master of Creative Writing from AUT. He now has a travel narrative and six novels published on Amazon.com/Kindle. He has also self-published the non-fiction book, 150 Years of New Zealand Shipyards 1795-1945. Earlier this year, he was co-producer of the award-winning spoken word event Spit.it.out. He is currently writing a young adult novel. More here.

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Tessa Hitchcox, Stolen Darkness

Light spilled through cracks that opened like hairline fissures in the dry soil, as if a great lantern swung from the ceiling of some long-forgotten cavern, hidden deep beneath the crust of the earth. There came that tired groaning of the ground again, as if it were turning in a fitful sleep, and more light spilled like blood as the wounds of the earth widened. The man didn’t flinch as the foundations upon which he stood shook like the foundations of his life. Didn’t flinch as the strange light crept slowly closer, mimicking the dark rings that had so slyly crept beneath his eyes. The ground rumbled again and the filtered haze blinded the man, washing him in pale yellow light like a faded watercolour. He smiled then, closing his eyes and letting the light drain his skin, letting himself become bleached beneath its hallowed glare. A faded watercolour. He liked that. He looked down at the earth, sensing its restlessness, and felt the tug of indecision. But the world was still turning beneath his feet, minutes ticking by as they followed the movements of a clock wound too tight. He couldn’t put it off forever. He could feel the fathomless weight of a shadow at his ankle, where it was tied about his pale skin like a satin ribbon. The shadow pulsed, aching to return to the Nether. The man tensed. Jumped. The earth swallowed him, the shadows worming back into their rightful place. And the light was extinguished.

Tessa Hitchcox is a student in Timaru and will be starting an English degree in 2014 at Otago University.

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Sian Williams, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas at Laugharne, 1938

He wants to stay inside and read but she leads him out into the spring garden, into her world, that bright and green place between the dark earth and the pale sky. A breeze wakens the wood and shakes the shadows on the lawn. The sun runs fingers down through the oaks to warm their winter-white faces.

They walk through swaying daffodils. Flowers of St David, patron saint of poets, he recalls. She bends to trail her hand through their golden heads. He tells her how David raised the hills of Wales so the heathen peoples would hear his voice above those of the wizard-kings. And although the tall grass grows now on their lonely barrows, and even the land is beginning to forget them, deep in their chambered tombs the druid’s bones remain: lying still with their amulets and their alchemy in the pagan earth.

“You always see what is beneath,” she says. And then, “Look, the first crocus.”

He imagines the crocus corms under the ground: naked, fleshy, tumescent. He is strangely aroused and takes her hand.

She laughs, places his hand on her breast and pulls him down into the cool green bed between the cleft roots of the trees. He kisses her hard and breathes in damp earth and leaf mould. He thinks she is, like Blodeuwedd, a druid’s bride made from flowers. He holds her tightly in case she, too, should turn into an owl and fly away.

Sian Williams is editor at Flash Frontier. She much admires the work of Dylan Thomas, as befits her Welsh heritage and name.

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Please also see this month’s feature, where we say farewell to Sian Williams, who ends her tenure as editor with this issue, and welcome new Editor Elizabeth Welsh and new Features Editor Rachel J Fenton.

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Coming in February 2014: one way stories. 

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