The Other Side|
by Chris James
Rated Teen 13+
Proudly presented by The Tarheel Writer - On the Web since 24 February 2003. Celebrating 20 Years on the Internet!
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Mason was twelve years old when he discovered the house and its curious occupants quite by accident. But his life had been moving in strange directions the past few months so he shouldn't have been surprised. He'd never thought about taking the left fork on that pathway through the woods, and then one day he did.
The right fork was the best shortcut to Waverly Street where a lot of his friends lived and the easiest way to reach the shopping center where they all hung out. The path was wide enough for a boy and his bicycle, the soil pounded hard and smooth over time. But it ran close to the river and the bright clear water was always a welcome sight.
Waverly Mills had everything a young boy could want in the way of entertainment. The community pool, the drugstore, a movie theater and a McDonalds. The latter was a new addition although Mason preferred the hamburgers at the drugstore and so did most of the town. There was no need to try the left fork and he didn't even know where it led.
But it was the end of summer and Mason was reluctant to think about starting in the new class at the middle school. Taking that sixth grade leap into the pool of older boys meant having to deal with them. Not all of them would like him … sometimes he didn't like himself for what he was thinking.
There were thoughts in his head that could never be spoken aloud, not if he wanted to fit in with the small town mentality that surrounded him. He knew what the feelings meant once he found the answers to his questions in books and on the internet.
He would soon be a teenager and unlike most of his friends he felt like that would be a curse. His body would change as would his thoughts, all driven by hormones he was helpless to defeat. Nothing good could possibly result from the increased sexual desires that were sure to rise up inside.
Not here in Waverly Mills, a conservative bastion of fanatical Christian religion if there ever was one. There must be a few atheists, maybe a secret Muslim or two, but they would be shunned or run out of town if they were discovered. Mason figured it would probably be worse for someone who was gay.
Mason, Liam and Mike had always stuck together through the years. Safety in numbers had worked so far, or perhaps it was because they could outrun the bad boys in town. But would his friends stand by him if they knew?
He had absolutely no reason to tell anyone except for the need to be true to himself. And now Mason knew he would have to face a school year with these building desires. It was depressing, a complete distraction in this last week of vacation…and so he took the left fork.
The river that ran through the center of Waverly Mills provided the centerpiece for most of the tourist attractions in town which was located in the far reaches of western Pennsylvania. The old mill and much of the downtown was built along its banks, as were the churches of the various denominations.
The Youghiogheny River tumbled down from the Appalachian Mountains and ran through Ohiopyle State Park about thirty miles away from Waverly Mills. Some of the best whitewater rafting in the eastern United States, or so Mason had heard. It was not an activity he planned to pursue.
But Waverly Mills was not located on the swift running Yough (pronounced Yock). A fold in the mountains formed tens of thousands of years ago, and a vast number of natural springs had formed a smaller river named Quaker Run. This swift running water fed into the Yough a few miles south of town. It was only a few feet deep, enough to drive a mill wheel in the olden days, and tempting enough for some fools to wade across.
The only problem with that was the water temperature was so cold by the time you reached the other side your toes might be damn near frozen. Still, people did it all the time, but not Mason. He was cautious about things in life, a thoughtful boy his Granny had often said.
So what was up the left hand path that plunged into the low growth of trees and bushes away from the river? Nothing so far except rough terrain that shook and rattled the frame of his bike as he peddled. But he followed the narrow path uphill until it quickly disappeared altogether.
Mason dismounted and pushed his bike forward into the trees. Tall trees at that, not like the low spindly ones behind him along the river. Quaker Run flooded every ten years or so when the spring rains were heaviest. Mason had only seen that happen once but he knew the water scoured away the banks of the river. He was well above the flood line here.
The forest ahead was filled with pines and oaks, elms and maples, all of that contributed to the deep leafy covering on the forest floor. It was quiet up here, maybe too quiet. Okay, the path was gone … and yet there seemed to be an open line through the trees towards … was that a house?
Mason pushed his bike along, afraid to leave it behind. Hell, it might get stolen or he would lose his way coming back and miss it. The quiet crunch of leaves under his feet made him look down and there amidst the debris … a whole bunch of mushrooms.
Both large and small, they seemed to grow in clusters under the trees on either side. Mason walked carefully since for some reason it seemed wrong to crush the fragile shapes. And then through the trees he saw the outline of a building and made his way in that direction.
It occurred that he might be trespassing on someone's property, but he had seen no signs, no fences. The angle of a roof, wooden siding, a window … the building looked like a garage or a shed. Mason pushed his bike forward until he reached the building and leaned it up against the back wall. No one was around, he could leave it here.
Looking through the window didn't show him much of the gloomy interior but he saw a lawn mower and a snow blower. Yes, this was a tool shed…so where was the house? He moved down the side of the building to the front and looked down the gravel path to where the trees opened up into a clearing.
The house was not like anything he had seen before, except maybe in books. Three stories high, covered in wooden shingles and with a roof made of corrugated metal. The windows along the back were tall and some of them were covered with closed shutters. Above the first floor was a screened porch that ran the length of the house.
It was all a little spooky, Mason decided, but definitely cool looking. The place must be hundreds of years old, he thought. I wonder of anyone lives here? There didn't seem to be a back door so if he wanted to find out if the house was occupied he'd have to go around to the front.
Mason made his way around the house, noticing that the leaves were undisturbed all along the foundation. It seems no one had been back here in quite some time. He reached the front corner of the house and stopped. There in front of the residence was a large clearing in the trees delineated by a circular gravel driveway.
Now he could see other things that suggested someone lived here. A garage with the door open and a car parked inside. But the whole circle in front of the house was filled with a garden, and at this time of the year it was overflowing with plants. Mason smiled when he saw the sunflowers standing tall against the garage wall.
"Hello, young fella," a voice called out.
Mason jumped at the sound and then looked towards the front of the house. There on the porch was an elderly man sitting in a rocking chair and waving at him.
"Come on over ... I don't bite," the man said.
The day was warm and yet the guy wore a sweater and ... was that a bow tie? His hair was almost white and was combed back in a sweep that reached his shoulders. Sorta like that preacher guy Mason had seen on television. But the smile was warm and disarming so Mason headed for the front steps.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," the man said. "John Fisher's my name ... what's yours?"
Mason mounted the stairs and stopped on the top step. "I'm Mason Burkholder."
"Amish?" Mr. Fisher asked.
Mason shrugged. "I think we had some Amish relatives, but my family isn't."
Fisher smiled. "About the same with us. So both our families were farmers at one time. Maybe that's why I like to get my hands in the soil." He gestured towards the garden. "Even a small plot like that is a lot of work to keep up."
"It looks good, Mr. Fisher," Mason said.
"Oh, I forget my manners," Fisher said. "Would you like something to drink? I think we have lemonade."
"I'm sorry ... I didn't mean to bother you."
"No, No ... come sit down," Fisher said. "We get so few visitors and it's always nice to see a new face."
Mr. Fisher turned his head towards the screen door and called out. "Hannah ... we have a visitor. Bring us some of that lemonade, will you?"
There was silence and then Mason heard steps approaching the front door. A woman pushed open the screen and stepped out on the porch.
"Oh, hello," She said, giving Mason a glance. "John, what was that you yelled about?"
"I was just wondering if you would bring us some lemonade. I'm sure Mason would be glad to have some. Mason, this is my daughter Hannah."
She smiled. "Mason, what a lovely name. I'll be right back."
Mr. Fisher sighed and Mason wondered what that was for. The daughter looked to be about his mother's age, but Mason didn't know much about stuff like that. He was twelve, what did he know about the age of old people?
"Your daughter lives here, Mr. Fisher?"
"Yes she does. Why don't you call me John, practically everyone does."
"Okay ... thank you."
"You live in town?" John asked.
"Not really, sir. Our house is in the valley I guess you would say."
"Over by Market Square then?"
"Exactly, but not in that new development, closer to the hospital."
John nodded. "Our family used to own that land a few generations ago. Everything east of the mill was farmland a hundred years ago. Waverly Mills would be considered a very young town compared to others."
"I thought Mr. Zook started the mill, at least that's what the sign says in town," Mason said.
"He did, way back in 1823. That was when the Amish first settled in this area. Old Zook and his tribe moved here from the Lancaster area. I guess he saw the mountains and realized he wasn't going to find any farmland further west. It was Zook and Fisher and King who settled the valley. I imagine there was a Burkholder family around back then as well."
"Really? My dad isn't a farmer. He's a doctor at the hospital."
"So what brings you out here so far from town?" John asked.
"I just wanted some time away ... school starts next week."
"Do you like school?"
"Sometimes, if the teacher is good. I like my English and history subjects the best," Mason said.
"Those were my favorites as well," John said. "Do you like to read?"
"I suppose, but most of the books in my elementary school library were pretty lame. Even the town library won't let me into the adult book section until I'm thirteen."
"Books are a constant delight to me," John said. "Would you like to see my library?"
"You have lots of books? I don't know if I should go into your house, will it be all right?" Mason said.
"Certainly, I've invited you."
Mason had seen pictures of old houses and their furnishings, but here was the real thing. The front hallway had a large curving stairway that led to the second floor but it was the banister that caught his attention. The wooden posts of the railing were carved into the shapes of animals. A lion here, a bear there…fascinating.
John led him into the living room which seemed to be filled to overflowing with old furniture. A large fireplace on one wall, and dozens of books seemed to fill the space on another. Books…there were lots and lots of books here. Mason figured it would take years to read them all.
The lower shelves held oversized books, most of them bound in leather. Not a paperback book in sight so he imagined these must be very old. John had been standing patiently as he watched Mason absorb the room, and then Hannah returned with a tray and their refreshments.
"Sit," John said as she laid the tray on a side table.
Mason chose a chair beside the fireplace and Hannah brought him a glass and a napkin. He took a sip and smiled.
"This is very good," Mason said. "Do you squeeze the lemons by hand?"
Hannah nodded. "It takes about twenty lemons to make a pitcher."
"My mom makes it with a powder from the grocery store…unfortunately."
John laughed and Hannah shook her head. "Anything worthy of the effort takes patience, not powder," She said. "Enjoy." And with that she left the room.
Mason looked at the shelves, wondering what kinds of books John had. The man spoke up as if reading his thoughts.
"My family has been collecting these books for over two hundred years. I have even more of them in the library."
"You have more than this? Wow, that's a lot of books. What are they all about?" Mason asked.
"Literature covers many subjects from the silly to the sublime. Not everything in the collection would be considered great literature, but there is a great deal of information here."
John took a sip of his lemonade and put the glass down on a coaster. Mason had wondered where he might set his own glass and he saw another coaster on the table beside his chair so he set his glass there.
"What kinds of subjects do you read about these days?" John asked.
"I'm afraid the books I've been reading are not very serious. I don't see much worth watching on television and during the school week I'm not allowed to watch it anyways, mom's orders. So the books I read are fun…Harry Potter kinds of fantasy."
John smiled. "Fantasy encourages the mind to wander and take delight in the travel. I have many of the classics of ancient literature, a good deal of history, some philosophy, but no fantasy I'm afraid. Well nothing in the way of modern fantasy. In the older works who is to say what is real or not…the reader must decide that for themselves."
John looked at him for a moment and Mason shifted in his seat. What would his mother say if she knew he was sitting in a stranger's house? He was sure the response would not be good.
"You remind me of someone," John said.
"It was a long time ago ... perhaps it's your age that reminds me of him." John sighed and then smiled. "But you didn't come here to listen to my old memories, would you like to see the library?"
Mason nodded and watched as John stood up. Something had changed and now it was as if there was another presence in the room. John had been about to reveal something but decided against it. Mason had a tenacious curiosity about this mysterious "him" but figured he would seem nosey if he asked.
John walked towards the front hallway and Mason followed, even more curious about what this library might hold. Across the hallway was a set of double doors that John slid open revealing more books than Mason had seen in his entire life.
Floor to ceiling, dozens ... no, hundreds of shelves laden with books covering the walls. There was even a ladder that slid on a rail to reach the top shelves ... a treasure trove of books.
"I have a catalogue, but you should just look around," John said.
"Can I touch them ... open them?" Mason asked.
"Of course, what good is a book that only sits on a shelf? There are lots of subjects you might find interesting. I just ask that you don't drop them and damage the spines."
"I'll be careful."
"I know you will. I'm going to speak to Hannah about making us some lunch. Take your time, find something good to read." And with that he left the room.
Mason stood in the middle of the room and slowly turned in a circle. Wow, where should he begin? Each shelf had a little brass plate that identified the books by subject matter. Philosophy of Ancient Greece, religions of the world, mathematics, world history…more books than he could read in a lifetime.
Mason perused the shelves reading the titles along one wall and then turned to follow along the next. Art, medicine, French literature. It seems this library had everything. Chemistry, natural science, magic…whoa, magic?
Mason shifted a large green book and pulled it down from the shelf. Alchemy in the Dark Ages read the title. He flipped through some of the pages and decided it was way over his head. It was okay to look at John's books but it would be better if he stuck to those he might have a chance at comprehending.
He closed the book and slid it carefully back on the shelf and watched as the book beside it slowly slid out towards him. Mason was astonished and looked at the title. The Little Wizard's Handbook of Spells was the name on the spine. That made him smile and he pulled it down off the shelf and opened the cover.
Spells and incantations for the beginner, the first sentence said. The gift a young wizard needs most to perform his magic is curiosity and an abiding acceptance of the unknown. Mason pulled his eyes from the page and in doing so happened to look towards the end of the row.
He paused, what was he looking at, was it a mirror? The row didn't seem to end but continued on into the distance as if the library shelves went on and on. Impossible, the house wasn't that big. It must be the reflection.
Mason carried the book towards what appeared to be a huge mirror and then he stopped just before he reached it and gasped aloud. Sitting at a table beyond the plane of what should have been solid glass was a young boy reading a book.
The gasp came because the boy looked a lot like he did, at least in age. But somehow the room past that plane seemed different, as if time had stopped beyond the glass. Mason reached out a finger, placed it on the mirror and saw ripples run away from his touch. The boy looked up at him and smiled.
"Hello ... who are you?" The boy said. "Did my father bring you here to talk to me?"
To that question Mason had no answer. The boy rose from his chair and walked towards the other side of the mirror allowing Mason to study him further. He was wearing a shirt with a collar buttoned up to the very top. The long pants he wore had cuffs above his shoes. Pants with cuffs? Not in my lifetime, Mason thought.
It was more than that which made Mason see the difference between them. The haircut was short, too short for boys of this age and time. The boy walked right up to the mirror, or whatever it was, and halted with that same subtle smile on his face.
"My name is Everett ... what's yours?" He asked.
"Uh ... Mason. Are you real?"
Everett laughed and the sound of that laughter seemed to ripple the mirror's surface.
"Didn't Father tell you about me?"
"Do I know your father?" Mason asked.
"You must, or you wouldn't be here in his library. I don't get many visitors, except for my sister Hannah."
Now Mason noticed the shelves of books on the other side of that mirrored plane.
"What kinds of books do you have over there?" Mason asked.
"These are my father's special books," Everett said. "Every time I open one I've seen before the contents are different. Nothing else in here changes except the books ... they're magical."
"Oh, that sounds fascinating…am I allowed to look at them?"
"I don't know, my father hasn't told me…you'll have to ask him."
"Then I will just have to ask him," Mason said.
"Ask me what?" Came the voice over Mason's shoulder.
He turned and saw the concern on John's face.
"I was just asking Everett if I could see the books he's been reading," Mason said, turning back to the mirror and noticing that the boy was no longer standing there. All he could see was his own reflection. And then he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned back to see the stunned look in John's eyes.
"Everett ... you've seen my son?"
It was Mason's turn to show surprise. Everett was his son, how could that be possible? The boy seemed to be Mason's age and John…well, John seemed ancient. He might be Everett's grandfather or…did men have children at this age?
"He said his name was Everett ... he was just standing there a moment ago, but he's gone."
John passed a hand across his face and seemed to go pale. He reached out for one of the nearby chairs and abruptly sat down. Mason turned back to the mirror and once again reached out to touch it. This time the surface seemed solid and he saw his hand in the reflection.
"I saw ... the boy was sitting at a table reading and he spoke to me, I swear," Mason said.
John nodded and motioned for Mason to come sit on the chair beside him. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his brow.
"I don't know where you learned my son's name, but Everett has been dead for almost seventy years. Right after the war we had a terrible outbreak of influenza here in Waverly Mills. We were such a rural town back then and there was no hospital ... so many died, especially the children.
"This was Everett's room back then and after he was gone I just couldn't come in here without feeling the terrible sadness of his death. It took years but I finally decided that I needed to do something with his room and I had the library built.
"You see, Mason, he loved books ... they were everything in his life. It seems fitting ... but how did you see him?"
"I saw the reflection at the end of the row and as I got closer the mirror seemed to become transparent. I saw this boy sitting at a table and he seemed ... he seemed like a vision from the past. He wore a shirt buttoned up to his neck and long pants with cuffs. His hair was short and kind of flat on the top ... " And Mason paused as he saw the tears in John's eyes.
John brought a hand up to his mouth and despite the tears Mason saw him smile.
"You did see him ... that's exactly what he looked like back in 1956. All the boys had flattop haircuts in those days."
John looked around the room and stared at the mirror. "Hannah wanted that mirror placed there because it's too big for any of the other rooms. But you were able to see through it and into the other side."
"What other side?" Mason asked.
"I don't know if I can explain it in terms you might understand…but there is more than one dimension in which we might exist. I had been hoping…no, it's not that easy. I have been studying the cosmos and those things within our realm that point to the existence of that other side. Many of the books you'll find at this end of the library speak about the bridge to that mysterious place."
"Everett knew about it, didn't he?" Mason said.
John's face lit up. "He said that?"
"Not exactly. He said that the books he has around him are magical and every time he opened one the contents are different."
John seemed excited now and he laughed. "Oh yes, he's been reading the right books ... no wonder you saw him."
"I had just asked him if I might look at those books when you walked in," Mason said.
John looked at the book in Mason's hand and nodded. "Sometimes the magic in books is invoked simply by touching them. But if you read them the wonders they contain become yours for life. I believe you when you say you saw Everett, he was reading that very same book when he became ill."
"If he exists across the bridge you spoke about then why can't you see him?" Mason asked.
"I see him here," John said, tapping the side of his head. "Everett was the most curious of boys and if he had lived I have no doubt he would have become a great man, but that is a father's judgment. Perhaps because you have no preconceived notions of the other side it means you can see him. Innocence often allows you to walk where knowledge blocks the way."
"I touched the mirror after I saw him and it didn't seem solid. Do you think I fantasized that?" Mason said.
"Perhaps not ... Hannah might know."
"She is your daughter ... ?"
"My second marriage," John said. "My first wife died of a broken heart several months after we lost Everett. Hannah's mother passed away a few short years ago just before her seventy-fifth birthday. We had a good life together, but I've known both joy and tragedy ... a very human existence."
John sat quietly for a moment and then Hannah appeared from around the corner.
"There you are, lunch will be ready quite soon," She said, and then she looked at the book in Mason's hand. "What have you two been up to?"
"Mason saw Everett," John said.
"Oh my ... "
"You've seen him, too," Mason said. "Everett says you visit him."
It was Hannah's turn to sit, and she looked at her father. "I've never actually seen him ... I just feel he is here. I come and read to him from the books he cannot touch, and when I do I feel his presence leaning on my shoulder to read the lines with me.
"I always wanted to have a brother ever since I was a little girl, but I never asked my parents why they didn't have other children. When I was no longer a little girl John told me about Everett. It was such a sad event that I was happy to find some connection to the boy, even if it is only reading to him ... I know he likes it."
"Mason says the mirror was not solid when he first saw Everett," John said.
"It was like a transparent wall," Mason said. "He stood so close that I could almost reach out and touch him, but I was afraid, perhaps I would break the spell, if that was what it was."
Hannah nodded. "I think you'll find the answer in that book you're holding. If Everett appeared to you it's because he wanted you to see him. Boys often share the same desires and when they do I guess you would call it magic."
She reached across and took her father's hand. "He will always be with us, John. Your memories are far better than something you might be able to see but not touch."
John nodded but Mason could see the sadness in his eyes. Yes, John would love to touch his son just one more time, perhaps share a hug. But then Mason had found the boy attractive and a hug would not be out of the possibilities they might share.
"So how about some lunch," Hannah said. "Then Mason can go back to reading his book."
The table in the kitchen was set for three and Hannah served up a thick broth filled with mushrooms. Without asking, Mason knew she had harvested them from the woods. There was more to Hannah than her good cooking skills, Mason was sure of that now.
She had the opportunity to read a great deal in the library and somewhere must have come across the knowledge she had about the other side where her half-brother existed. That must be a comfort, especially when John became so sad and she had to deal with it. She had endured the loss as well but found a way to accept it.
When lunch was over Hannah went about her chores and John led Mason back out onto the porch. The warm August day out in the yard was filled with insects and birds. John silently sat in his rocking chair and contemplated the nature surrounding them.
"If you want to go back to the library go right ahead," John said. "I generally doze off out here until Hannah pulls me inside for a nap. Yes, go read the book and learn what you can before the chance escapes you."
"Will I see Everett again do you think?"
"Perhaps, I don't know how that works. He seems to be in control of that mirror and he must like you to have revealed himself. If you do speak with him again ... tell him I love him and he will always be in my heart."
"Maybe I can get him to show himself to you," Mason said.
"No, that's not likely to happen ... I'm too old to accept the conditions of that exchange. He needs to know a boy like you, someone who will treat him as a real person and not like some ghost behind the glass. I don't know what it is like on the other side ... I just know it must be lonely. So go on and see if he will speak to you again."
"Thank you," Mason said, and he walked back in the house.
The book was just where he had left it sitting on the small table. Mason picked it up again and opened the cover. The first sentence was different.
The unknown draws you in and a wizard, no matter how skilled or determined, must accept one great truth: the unknown is the future ...
And Mason heard the giggles coming from behind the mirror. He looked up as the reflective surface became transparent and Everett was standing there.
"That old tosspot confused the hell out of me when I first read that book."
"I read the first sentence earlier, but now it's changed," Mason said.
"That's one of the magic books ... the only one beyond the bridge as I recall. The rest of them are here with me."
Mason closed the book and moved to the surface of the mirror. "Can I ... do you think ... will I be allowed across the bridge?"
"If you want, the choice is now yours."
"I would like that," Mason said. "I need to give you something from your father."
"Come on then ... and bring the book," Everett said. "I've never had a guest before and you'll do just fine."
Mason looked at the surface of the mirror. The unknown draws you in ... and he stepped through the plane and across the bridge.
Everett's room looked tidy and neat, with a daybed in the corner and the table with two chairs his only furniture. The boy smiled at him and took the book from his hand, setting it on the table.
"And what did my father send me?"
"This," Mason said, and slid his arms around Everett's neck, pulling him into an embrace. He wasn't sure it was possible, and that perhaps Everett was mere form and no substance. But the boy felt warm and strong, just as if he were alive and on the other side of the mirror.
Mason relaxed his grip and moved his head off of Everett's shoulder until they were eye to eye. "That was fun," Mason said.
Everett looked down and smiled. "You must have enjoyed it ... you have a stiff one in your pants."
Mason blushed but didn't lose eye contact. "I've never hugged a boy before ... but I've wanted to for the longest time."
"So you're queer, is that it?" Everett asked.
Mason smiled. "The modern word is gay. Queer seemed hateful to so many people that it's now called gay. But I've known about myself since I was ten, and since then I've found out all about it from my reading."
Everett nodded. "Needless to say I've been out of touch with so many things on the outside. Gay is good with me and perhaps I should read about it if you can find me the right book. I wanted to fool around with Matthew King but never got the chance." Then he laughed. "I suppose he's an old man by now."
"I'm sorry," Mason said. "I don't mean to point out our differences because of ... "
"No, stop right there. I am not in pain or depressed. I can leave this place except I can't take my body with me. Imagine wandering around totally invisible."
"So you leave and no one knows about it?"
"Most of the time. But I have caused some mischief over the years. Haven't you ever seen a dog bark at absolutely nothing? They seem to sense my presence, and people do sometimes as well. Hannah has felt me, she knows I'm real."
"You're very real," Mason said, and with that he took Everett into another embrace.
"I like this ... I may want to do it all the time."
"That can be arranged," Mason said. "So let me tell you what we're learning in school these days. It must have been far different when you were my age."
Everett laughed. "Silly boy, I am your age and I always will be. Let's sit and you can tell me about your school. Do they have a lot of books there?"
John was happy when he looked in the library and saw no one was there. Perhaps Mason had found his way to the other side. It would be good for Everett to have a companion who could come and go at will.
The day would come when he would be able to see his son again, he was sure of that. Not soon perhaps, but at some point everyone crossed the bridge to the other side. It was only a matter of accepting the unknown.
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