About the Author

Joan Barfoot

Joan Barfoot is one of the most engaging, entertaining, and original voices in contemporary fiction; her eleven novels capture the lives of people as they lived in the last twenty years of the 20th century and the first twenty years of the 21st. Readable and sophisticated, her work has been frequently compared to Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Drabble, and Fay Weldon. Her novels have been nominated for, or won, numerous prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Books in Canada (now Amazon.ca) First Novel Award, and the Man Booker Prize, and they have been translated into French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Danish. She is also the recipient of the Marian Engel Award. Her novel, Dancing in the Dark, was adapted to an award-winning feature film by the same name and it was entered into competition at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival. At the peak of her powers, Joan Barfoot’s books are splendidly realized tragicomedies with note-perfect narration, mordant wit, and wonderfully neurotic casts of characters; she shows us human relationships revealed in all their absurdity and complexity. The body of her work can best be described as scintillating comedies of manners which are also profound meditations on fate, love, and artifice.

Books by this Author

Abra

A Novel
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tagged : sagas
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Critical Injuries

A Novel
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tagged : sagas
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Dancing in the Dark
Excerpt

1

I bind my wounds with paper; with this blue notebook, a garish shade not eggshell nor sky nor water, but a colour too blunt and striking. There are spaces on the cover labelled, in black print, Name ____________; and below that, Subject ____________. The date is August 17. I asked the ­nurse.

In tiny print in the bottom left-­hand corner it says the book is printed with recycled paper. And that, I think, is good. I have always approved of that sort of thing, when I have thought about ­it.

Inside, the notebook is lined thinly with grey, a pink stripe marking a margin at the side of each page, three holes cut into each margin, round and precise, not at all like the holes, irregular and unspaced, made by a knife in a body. There is a comforting neatness about this book, so one feels compelled either to leave it blank or to write in it carefully, perfectly, and with a certain pain in the ­perfection.

I appreciate things that are careful, complete, and perfect. This day, for instance. I am fortunate to have a place beside the big window, so that I can look out without ­obstruction.

Here, of course, there is an unchanging temperature, an untouchability in the atmosphere. So I cannot tell if outside it is uncomfortably hot, but I think not; I think it is a day in which heat soaks the body like a liniment and ­heals.

Yesterday it rained. But since I am safe inside here, that too was fine, and I watched the greyness falling ­mist-­like. The result of the rain is that in today’s sunshine there is an extra greenness, an ­almost-­too-­shrill brightness. It is all quite clearly defined; there are perceptible boundaries between the green of the grass and the ­tree-­trunk-­grey and the deep green leaves, no blending to ­confuse.

On such a day the mind should also be ­distinct.

It is the details with which I may occupy myself, nothing larger than this room, this body. I shall attempt neatness and keep removed from ­passion.

The bed is narrow, sheeted with white, coarse. The bed I used to have was wide, the sheets were blue and in the winter covered by the deep down quilt made far back in my mother’s family, in aging rags of blue, soft yellow checkered red and white. That bed did not have buttons to be pushed that raise shiny steel bars at the sides, an extra bulk that spoils the simplicity of the lines. And it was softer too, while this one is hard and tightly ­wrapped.

There are two such beds in this room. One is mine, and I am careful to stay in it, or near it, never stray too far, for although it may be strange and ugly, it is also ­mine.

I can reach out and touch it from where I sit in the easy chair, the ­blue-­and-­purple-­patterned chair that fills the space between the narrow bed and the wide, ­heavy-­glass window. I sit with my legs crossed at the ankles, back pressed firmly against the chair, blue notebook opened squarely on my lap, my knees touching the base of the window ledge while still in my line of vision on the other side is the glimpse of unwrinkled ­sheet-­whiteness. Three feet, perhaps, between bed and ­window.

It is precisely the right amount of space. This much I can manage, most ­days.

At the foot of my bed, a narrow pathway distant, is a dresser, a double one that extends the width of my bed and beyond into the other half of the room, a double dresser with mirror, drawers of underwear shared, split into mine and other. Over the centre of my half is a cheap framed landscape, autumn trees with unreal red and gold leaves, a ­too-­blue stream running past ­steel-­grey rocks. Not the sort of painting I would choose, and yet it is oddly right for this ­room.

Overhead there is a fluorescent light, switched on at dusk and on dull days. Attached to the headboard of the bed is a reading lamp, which must not be used after a certain hour. When it gets dark, ­cream-­coloured curtains are drawn across the windows and there is no more to ­see.

It is a puzzling ­half-­room, clumsily warm, but not personal. Some things I like about it though: that it is arranged in straight lines; that it is always in order; that I am responsible for none of ­it.

The days are slow, events are rare. No one makes me move. The farthest I go from my narrow ­half-­room is to the dining area three times a day; the second farthest when I again pass the other bed, the other half of the double dresser, the second and ­near-­identical landscape on the wall, the closet, to go to the washroom. There are two of us in this room, with a washroom connecting with two others in the next room. To be sure of privacy in the bathroom, it is necessary to lock two doors: the one from Room 201, which is mine, and the one from Room 203, which is next door. Sometimes when I sit on the toilet and do not care to move, for it is white and bright in there, a door handle may move and there may be a muffled remark, but I pay no attention. To move, even if I wanted to, is an effort of will, and I am somewhat short of will these ­days.

And too, consumed as I am by the trivialities of my own existence, a piece of lint on my housecoat, the glint of a straight pin on the carpet by my chair – and how would such a thing get there if not through me, and I have no use for straight pins, a puzzle to occupy some moments – how should I then have attention for those others? I am careful not to see them. I want to know nothing about them. I take special care in my own ­half-­room never to glance beyond my bed, never to acknowledge the mutters and rustlings from the other bed, never to meet eyes. If it were possible, I would roll my eyes inward and stare only at ­myself.

When I am to be dressed, someone does it for me. They get me up and seat me; sometimes even brush my teeth. I would have my food, too, spooned into me except that that would make a contact, it would be difficult to avoid the eyes and too much trouble, and so I feed myself. I wait, though, until the meat has been cut for me. Otherwise I would have to take it in my hands to gnaw, for I cannot imagine myself carving it ­up.

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Duet For Three

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also available: eBook
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Duet for Three

Duet for Three

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Exit Lines

Exit Lines

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

AT THREE IN THE MORNING . . .

At three o’clock in the morning, that defenceless hour when anything feels possible and nothing human or inhuman out of the question, the Idyll Inn’s only sounds are the low hum and thrum a complicated building makes to keep itself going. Like any living body, even a sleeping or unconscious one, a building has to sustain its versions of blood and breath, so there’s a perpetual buzz to it, white noise in the ­night.

With only those faint sounds for companionship, three o’clock in the morning is an uneasy hour for the wakeful. It is also the most discreet hour for dodgy, unsavoury acts. Still, while those abroad tonight in the Idyll Inn may find their moods swinging between severely apprehensive and hopeful, there remains potential for a kind of slapstick comedy. If they are discovered, whether too soon, too late, or quite irrelevantly, their lookout will bumble about causing as much tripping and confusion as possible, while the others are to divert authority with exclamations and flailings and ­jostlings.

If all goes well, there’ll be no repercussions. If all does not, they’ll be in big trouble. They have chosen nevertheless, not lightly, to draw on whatever reservoirs they possess of determination. Stubbornness. Will. Solidarity in the cause of friendship and, they suppose, of its surprisingly expansive ­boundaries.

On their side is the unassailable fact that whatever transpires, barring ­on-­the-­spot discovery, the odds are decent that no one will ever find out. Resistance is high, they understand, to seeing them clearly at all. Or as one of them has previously remarked, “Most people would rather paddle the Amazon than be tourists around here.”

People are cowards, she ­meant.

So were they, ­once.

Well, they can’t be cowards tonight. In the morning, though, the real morning, they intend to have a bit of a ­lie-­in. Either life will go on as unaltered and perilously as life at the Idyll Inn ordinarily does, or they’ll be indulged with extra treats and particularly kind words. Either way, it’s nice to have cosiness and comfort to look forward to, if only because the prospect of even a small reward at the end helps keep a person going, ­really.

2
GOOD BUSINESS, WELL ­DONE . . .

Nearly four seasons back, during a blessedly balmy spring run of ­late-­April days, ­move-­in time has finally come to the Idyll Inn. From start to ­near-­finish, from plans and permits to all the necessities and some of the graces, construction on this plot of riverside land in this small city has taken just eight months, including the periodic disruptions of winter. During this time and even before, when it existed only in theory, the place has been an object of interest and curiosity; in some cases, suspense; in a few others, ­desperation.

This Idyll Inn is the latest addition to a small chain that is not locally based. The corporation is not called something obvious like Idyll Inn Inc. or Ltd., but is a numbered company run by a management group on behalf of a collective of professionals, mostly dentists and doctors, interested in untroublesome, steady investment in what’s bound to be a growth industry. The expectation is that as the chain thrives, it will become a bigger firm’s takeover target, so from every perspective, present and future, its investors must ­prosper–­how can they ­lose?

The paved parking lot, which will be adequate for the ordinary run of events, is insufficient for so much simultaneous activity, so each day during ­moving-­in week there’s a muddle of small vans and trucks arriving with their loads of possessions, leaving not much later empty. There is, too, considerable risk of dented fenders, bumped bumpers, in all the forwarding and reversing and squeezing by large and small cars, many of them occupied by tense ­multi-­generational groups up to their necks and nerve endings in emotions of one sort and ­another.

How purposefully strangers hustle through the parking lot, how swiftly and surprisingly movers wielding sofas and chairs in the corridors overtake those slowly taking up ­residence–­how alarming and ­rude.

Never mind, their day will ­come.

At this stage in the numbered company’s expanding history, there’s a vast, detailed, operational template governing services, menus, staffing levels, recreational offerings, cultural and religious observances, decor and other fundamental amenities, right down to the number and location of phone connections in individual suites. Overall design, however, varies from one Idyll Inn to another, depending on ­­lot size and shape. This Idyll Inn, if viewed from the unlikely vantage point of the air, more or less resembles a sperm: a rounded head with a long ­two-­storey ­tail.

The tail section contains forty suites, twenty up, twenty down, all brightly painted, with shiny fixtures in their bathrooms and large windows in their main rooms. The main room in each suite provides lots of space, adaptable to individual taste, for chairs and sofa as well as TV set and sound system, coffee table, an end table or two, and various meaningful ­knick-­knackeries. Each suite also contains an array of ­built-­in cupboards, closets, drawers and shelves for storage and display purposes, which means that bedrooms don’t have to contain closets and drawers, and so can be on the small side, really only big enough for a human or two plus bed and side ­table.

Ten ­main-­floor suites along one side of the ­sperm-­tail’s long central corridor even have decks attached, which will be useful for outdoor leisure activities such as sitting in lawn chairs in the upcoming good weather. Those rooms and decks, which overlook the river flowing by, or in deep summer, drying up, are more expensive than the rest, and not everyone can afford the extra cost on top of what is already a substantial basic ­rent.

That rent includes the friendly, communal, ­well-­intentioned features located in the ­single-­storey part of the building which would, from the air, form the plump head of the sperm. Circling about from the main ­double-­doored entrance are several rooms: a large lounge with plants and paintings, low tables, soft chairs and hard ones, where sociable people are expected to gather to chat and play cards or word games, or to rattle away at the computer on a desk in one corner; a crafts and activities room with long schoolroom tables and chairs, and tall cupboards behind whose doors are the papers, glues, paints, yarns and mosaic tiles that are to become drawings and placemats and small candy dishes; a laundry room, another benefit of the place, one more dull burden lifted; a kitchen outfitted with ­restaurant-­quality cooking and refrigerating equipment; the open space of the dining room, where almost everyone upstairs and down will gather for breakfast, lunch and supper at round tables, getting to know each other quite swiftly, if they don’t already, for better or worse. Since this Idyll Inn is located in such a small city, a mere forty thousand citizens give or take, it’s safe to assume that many residents will already know, or at least know of, each other. Again, for better or ­worse.

The dining room’s grandest feature is a great wall of windows facing, like the most costly suites, the river that winds by bearing ducks, canoeists, anglers, assorted debris. Better than television, is the idea; and also light, as has been proven, affects people’s spirits. Research in design indicates that a happy crew, or at worst a tolerably amenable one, should be the result. Not that, once residents are installed, their moods will necessarily count for ­much–­certainly not to the distant investors, as long as the money rolls in. The Idyll Inn is rather like a Brazilian mine or a sweatshop in China that ­way.

Some afternoons and evenings the dining room will be cleared for various entertainments. Every day there’s to be a minimum of one organized activity somewhere in or outside the building, and holidays will be marked as they arise and as they represent the customs and beliefs of the residents. Here in this city, there’ll be no need for any very exotic or even multicultural celebration, but whatever does come up is well ­covered.

Completing the circle, back near the main entrance, is the staff office, which this week, possibly every week, is busy with harried people, women, on a steep learning curve. Across from it is the ­ill-­named library, a ­dark-­panelled room with no books except a set of encyclopedias and a severely ­out-­of-­date atlas, but with a ­wide-­screen TV and a fireplace, two large sofas and several easy ­chairs–­rather lush, in an English ­unlettered-­country-­gentleman sort of ­way.

And that’s it. The landscaping remains to be done, but otherwise the contractors have met most of their deadlines. Incomplete landscaping doesn’t prevent the place from opening for business, although, aside from the parking lot, the property is bogged down in spring mud. Soon, however, it will be covered in sod and dotted with decorative rocks and perennial flowers and shrubs, and no doubt residents will enjoy observing this happen as spring and summer unfold. Many are probably interested in gardening, and the rest should be pleased enough to watch workers ­working.

It’s in the interests of its distant investors that the Idyll Inn be comfortable and attractive in order to appeal to prosperous clients. At the same time, there must be responsible limits, which in practice means that the walls are painted appealing shades of pastels, and the chairs and tables are both efficient and homey, and the floors look like real tile, and the flowers and plants placed here and there out of the way are either ­full-­grown and thriving or fake, and the art on the walls is unobjectionable, mostly prints of gardens, seashores and animals grazing in fields; but which also means that under the paint the drywall is not always smooth, the chair at the computer desk in the lounge is by no means ergonomically top of the line, the floor tiles are ­stick-­downs, and the flowers and plants camouflage a certain draftiness around some of the ­windows.

Those doctors and dentists with their numbered company and expanding empire have no intention of being directly involved ­with–­of even ­visiting–­this Idyll Inn or any other, so it’s fortunate that Annabel Walker exists. She grew up in this city, left at twenty, returned at fifty, and in the interim trained and worked restlessly in nursing, briefly and radically in auto repair, and finally and practically in accounting. She has already worked at a larger Idyll Inn elsewhere, although not as manager. She is unencumbered and plain, and looks fairly worn down by the world, and at this stage is likely to remain unencumbered and plain, if not necessarily worn down, and so can presumably be counted on to concentrate on running this Idyll ­Inn.

During the months of construction, she has spoken extensively and intensively with a great many people. She has cracked the whip with contractors to keep schedules nearly on track. She has interviewed and hired staff, supervised the distribution of instruction manuals and the showing of corporate videos on required procedures, and is already keeping an eye on one or two staff with a view to possible firings. She has been responsible for furnishing and stocking the place, within the limits specified by the Idyll Inn rules. All that is good business, well ­done.

She has also, when possible, personally interviewed prospective residents. She has reviewed their histories, medical and otherwise, checked their credit, conducted tours, allocated suites, heard a great many stories. Unlike a newcomer to town, she knows there will be people at the Idyll Inn over whom she’ll particularly have to exert her authority, and here, quite possibly, comes one ­now.

3
MUSTN’T START ON A SOUR ­NOTE . . .

Not for Sylvia Lodge an ignominious arrival in the hands of others, that sure, helpless sign of having waited too long. She comes to the Idyll Inn under her own steam, not counting the taxi driver, who gets no ­tip–­imagine honking from her driveway instead of ringing the doorbell, imagine not helping, and never mind that she doesn’t particularly need help with only a purse and a small fabric suitcase containing toiletries, ­mainly.

He can mutter, “Cheap old bitch,” if he chooses, but he’d do better to turn his mind to the benefits of courteous service. Another time she might set out to instruct him about who may lie behind the rangy flesh of an ­eighty-­one-­year-­old female, which in this instance happens to be a good tipper, but today she has other ­concerns.

She is not one of those superstitious people who hesitate before pride in the nervous belief that it precedes a fall. Pride, in fact, helps hold her upright, and therefore upright she proceeds along the short walkway and through the two sets of automatically opening glass doors of the Idyll Inn entrance. There’s not much time before her moving van will arrive, her possessions in the hands of two scruffy young men she found through the classifieds. She has culled fairly ruthlessly, but there’s still a lot of life travelling behind her, and she wants to be organized for it and prepared to ­direct.

Her new home sweet home. But mustn’t start on a sour note, or a dubious ­one.

It is ­mid-­afternoon. She woke early this morning, melancholy as any normal human would be. Besides closely supervising the young men as they loaded her selected remaining possessions into their van, she took a last stroll around her garden, admiring particularly the hardy spring tulips and tough, graceful forsythia. Indoors she observed the light slanting through leaded windows, patterning bare hardwood floors, and ran her fingers over the naked fireplace mantel and shivered at the echoey sound of her solitary voice when she made the sentimental mistake of saying aloud, “Goodbye then, old house.” She cooked herself an asparagus omelette for lunch, on the theory that future omelettes would likely be of the cooling, rubbery variety, possibly not even involving real eggs.

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Luck

Luck

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The First Day
One

There is good luck, and there is bad luck, and then there’s the ambiguous sort of luck that’s a lot of this and some of the other. For instance:

When Philip Lawrence, already recipient of a reasonably gratifying life, has the misfortune to die, he is just forty-six, which in some other part of the world or some other century would be a grand old age, but is terribly young in this place and time. On the other hand it is his good luck to die quietly in his bed, apparently in his sleep, a remarkably mild and merciful, even enviable, ending. So when Philip Lawrence drifts in the embrace of good luck and bad out of life in the course of an August night, while the air conditioning wafts its comfort indoors, while outside, grass shrivels, flowers wilt, trees droop, animals pant for moisture and air, when the moon is bright but the curtains are drawn and the big old house is mainly silent except for the sounds big old houses make to themselves in the night, there is no particular need to feel sorry for him. Surely if he has suffered at all, it can have been only briefly.

A different matter entirely for the living.

Not at all enviable or awash in good fortune is whoever wakens beside him and stretches, running the planned events of the day muzzily through the mind, reorienting slowly to the deliciously ordinary or the warmly anticipated, and finds herself on the pillow next to, on the same mattress as, the inert, the cooling, the truly departed. An unambiguously nasty moment for that person, turning to speak, turning to touch. This is no way for a day to begin; nor, really, for anything else to begin, but like it or not there is death lurking, life’s great big vanishing question mark. Might as well see what’s to be made of it. Buck up and face it since, one way and another, everyone must.

Today death is rolling into the lives of Nora, Sophie and Beth, and it won’t be long before the entertaining question will arise: which of the three draws the cosmic short straw, who wakens amiably beside Philip Lawrence and is hurtled, unprepared, into horror and shock? What does she do? How does she tell the others – oh, many questions to spark the tongues of the villagers; those villagers, Nora has lately come to feel, who might in another country, another century, have gathered up torches to carry to the house on the hill, intending to punish, and with any luck burn.

But Nora’s imagination is in morbid overdrive anyway, since she is, in fact, the one who draws the short straw. It’s Nora who feels consciousness creeping back an hour or so after the dawn. Who is cooled by air conditioning, not by death. Who rolls onto her back and stretches her legs and curls her plump arms over her head, feeling the exhilarating blood warming her arteries and her veins. Who begins ticking off in her mind the anticipated events of the day ahead, and who finally turns to Philip, her husband (and wouldn’t the villagers be disappointed to know it’s Nora respectably beside him at this unrespectable moment?), and sees him smiling a strange, drawn, pale smile.

A rictus, as it turns out. Nora does not understand this right away. Most people don’t absorb new information quite that swiftly. She thinks he is having a dream. Even a pleasant dream, considering the strange smile.

There’s much to be done, though, no time to waste waiting for dreams, however pleasant, to run their generally unmemorable course; and so she says, softly but cheerfully, intending to give an optimistic bounce to the start of the day, “Philip, wake up, time to get going.” Their plans are to drive to the city a couple of hours away and meet up with Max for lunch and a discussion of a show of her work within the next year or so. Max, who owns a gallery and has represented her for almost two decades, only a few days longer than she’s known Philip, wants to set tentative dates. He has also mentioned he would like to see fresh directions, as she would herself, but these things take time to begin revealing themselves, and then to sink in. So: lunch at a fine and far-away restaurant with Philip and Max, an intense but also languorous conversation with two good men on various interesting subjects – what could be a happier prospect?

Not to mention that this could be one of those exciting days in which new directions come clearer.

As it will be.

“Come on, let’s go, we’ve got lovely big plans.” Philip, an exuberant man, tends to respond to exuberance, if also, less openly and appealingly, to certain kinds of mute need. Whatever his preferences, Nora can only use the devices and charms she has. It is too late to figure out new ones.

Later than she could have imagined. Philip is not merely resisting her, content in his dream. She realizes this as her hand grips his arm, intending to shake him, although gently, beginning the day as it should be begun if it is to continue as it ought to continue. His arm is curiously unmalleable. It will not be easily shaken. It implies an absence that has not been implied before.

Nora screams. She leaps up.

She immediately regrets, not the leaping – who would not leap? – but the scream. It calls attention, it calls the others, she has lost the moment that was just hers. Drawn by the highly unusual sound of Nora screaming, Beth dashes into the bedroom doorway from one direction, her thin cotton nightie awry, and from the other direction comes Sophie still in the process of struggling into her robe, one arm caught and the material flying. Sophie sleeps naked, which it would please the villagers to know, but which does not please Nora, already thoroughly distressed and in no mood for a vision of Sophie’s large, bounding breasts, her fleshy hips, that clutch of invasive red pubic hair, particularly tasteless and bold in the circumstance.

Also, what if Philip weren’t dead, what sort of state would this be to arrive in?

“What? What?” Beth has the slight voice of a girl, insufficient to many occasions, absurd and offensive in this one.

Sophie’s tone, her “What is it, what’s wrong?” is also inappropriate. Too hearty, too ready to take action: to defend or to diagnose and then repair.

No defence possible. No repairs to be done. Diagnosis too late.

“He’s dead,” Nora says, her own voice, not quite under control, still surprised.

Well, what a mixture of voices then, a choral chaos – what is to be done? Make coffee, make tea, close the bedroom door, not in that order. Shut out the sight of Philip, dead and smiling his dreaming rictus smile, shut out his easy overnight departure, shut out the tightening of his limbs, shut out the chill.

Call his doctor. Call an ambulance. Why? Never mind, it’s what’s done. No one thinks to get dressed, except for Sophie pulling her peacock-bright robe properly around her large bounding breasts, her fleshy hips, her invasive red pubic hair; and so Beth is still in her cotton nightie, Nora still in her white panties and Philip’s blue pyjama top, all three of them in disarray when the ambulance screams up, its mechanical wail a reproach, making Nora’s already-lost scream insufficiently shocked, inadequately shocking, for the occasion.

Philip’s doctor, Ted Marlowe, pulls up in his Jetta. Here comes a police car as well, although without sirens or lights.

A man and a woman in matching dark blue rush from the ambulance up the bricked walkway, and up the four steps, and across the hardwood-floored porch to the massive front door, already opened by Nora. Between them they are wielding a stretcher of black rubber, black plastic and something like chrome. “Up there,” and Nora gestures to the staircase. “Second door on the right.” Her thighs, revealed to the daylight, are not what they once were. Neither are Sophie’s, or even Beth’s, but theirs are concealed.

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