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The Aftermath by Angela Patera

Angela Patera was born in 1986 in Athens, Greece. She is an ESL teacher and a mother. Having studied English Language and literature at the National University of Athens, she pursued a Master's Degree in Cultural Administration and Communication. Her main field of interest is the representations of womanhood, race, and disease in Culture (especially literature).


The Aftermath



On September 7, 1999, at 14:56:51 local time, a powerful earthquake measuring 6.0


on the Richter scale struck near Mount Parnitha in Athens, Greece. This seismic


catastrophe, occurring in dangerously close proximity to the Athens metropolitan


area, inflicted profound devastation. Over 100 buildings, among them three major


factories, succumbed to the violent tremors, trapping countless victims beneath their


ruins. Tragically, this unrelenting quake claimed 143 lives. One of them was my


brother, John.


That day had been truly exceptional, thus far. My mum, enjoying a rare day off from


work, had taken John and me shoe shopping. I bought a pair of sleek Nike Air


sneakers. My evening plans were set: a trip to the local cinema complex to watch


Armageddon with a friend. John’s mood remained persistently somber throughout the


day. He lamented about the perceived monotony of his life, burdened by the


impending start of his senior year in high school, endless homework, and a recent


breakup with his long-time girlfriend. When I invited him to join us for the movie, he


nonchalantly dismissed the idea. Standing tall and muscular, with dreadlocks reaching


halfway down his back and a face adorned with numerous piercings, he deemed


himself too cool to accompany two 13-year-olds to the local cinema complex for a


blockbuster movie night.


Mum wanted to pop to the supermarket so she swiftly took us home to resume our


quarrel. Once inside, John retreated to his bedroom while I sought refuge in my


parents’ bedroom. There, I settled on the bed, turned on the TV, and chanced upon an


episode of Baywatch. I cranked up the volume and made myself comfortable. In the


background, John’s hardcore punk music blared through the bedroom walls, grating


on my nerves. I was about to storm into John’s room and give him an earful when I


suddenly heard a thunderous sound. Initially, I mistook it for an airplane crash nearby


but within seconds, the earth trembled, swaying and shaking our home. The deafening


crash of shattering glass and the sensation of being showered with countless shards


overwhelmed me. Panic coursed through my veins as blood started gushing out of


everywhere. I darted under my mother’s vanity, yet, in an instant, John’s protective


arms embraced me, shielding us from the chaos that had descended upon our lives.


In mere seconds, my brother’s strong hand yanked me from under the vanity, guiding


me out of our third-floor apartment. Bloodied and barefoot, I looked around the


familiar place I had called home my entire life, now an unrecognizable nightmare.


The whole apartment complex resembled a war zone. As we neared the building’s


exit, a sudden, searing pain shot through me and I let out a cry. I had inadvertently


stepped on a sharp piece of metal and my food bled profusely. John’s face revealed a


mix of concern and frustration. “Oh for fuck’s sake, let me find you some shoes” he


muttered-his last words to me.


Moments after he disappeared from my sight, another thunderous roar shattered the


air, plunging me into a suffocating cloud of dust. When I managed to open my eyes, I


was met with a horrifying sight: an entire section of our apartment block had


collapsed. John was nowhere to be seen. I clawed my way out of the wreckage,


eventually reaching the front garden of the building. A thick coat of white dust,


mingled with fresh blood from hundreds of little wounds covered my body. My ears


rang, muffling all the sounds around me and each breath seared my lungs like fire.


Desperation welled up as I strained to respond to a distant call of my name. I opened


my mouth but my voice had abandoned me. Then, a gentle hand on my face stirred


me and a familiar voice reached my ears. It was my mother, her kind face streaked


with tears. I closed my eyes and began to drift away.


Three days later, I woke up on a hospital bed. I could see my mum nestled on a chair


by my side. My arms and legs lay shrouded in bandages, my attire reduced from the


Levi’s jeans I last remembered myself wearing to a white hospital gown. In that


instant, the memories of that harrowing day flooded back, dragging with them torrents


of heart-wrenching pain. Tears welled, yet my voice remained imprisoned, incapable


of articulating the anguish building up within me. My mum, sensing my unspoken


terror, pressed a gentle kiss to my cheek. As if she had read my thoughts, she


informed me I had suffered a concussion and I had drifted in and out of consciousness


for three days. Despite the terrifying ordeal, the doctors assured us that no permanent


brain damage had been inflicted. My body was cocooned in bandages because I had


had at least a hundred stitches. Astonishingly, all wounds were predominantly


superficial, the shards of glass sparing any major arteries. The rasping pain in my


throat was a lingering effect of the dust inhaled. A sliver of glass had lightly grazed


the retina of my eye but it wouldn’t leave a scar and it wouldn’t impair my vision.


They had to cut me out of my Levi’s jeans but I was not to worry, dad had already


procured a fresh pair of Levi’s jeans for me. Amidst the ruins of our home, dad had


managed to salvage some fragments of our life possessions: my spanking new Nike


Air sneakers, my Discman, some of my CDs, a handful of clothes, and a few treasured


books. And then, in a moment of profound sorrow, my mother softly uttered the


words I had been dreading to hear: “John is dead”. I shut my eyes and even though


my mind howled with agony, no sound escaped my lips.


A week later, I was discharged from the hospital. My mum, deeply concerned about


my persistent silence, insisted on a psychiatric evaluation but the turmoil wrought by


the disaster had stretched the mental health resources of the hospital. The doctors just


advised her to give me time. We were to stay at my aunt’s house temporarily where


an entire room awaited us, cleared with love and care. My parents, valiant in their


façade of normality, resumed their daily routines and engaged in the pursuit of a new


home for the three of us. They showered me with new clothes and hid their sorrow in


my presence, acting as if the calamity that had bestowed us was a mere setback, a part


of life’s winding road. In time, they secured a new apartment across town, far from


haunting reminders of our past. I enrolled in a new school, a stranger in an unfamiliar


environment, beginning the eighth grade with the moniker “Scarface” due to the tiny


little scars that marred my face and body. Those taunts held absolutely no power over


me, for the true agony lay in me being alive while John was dead.


My parents maintained a heavy silence regarding the events, but I managed to piece


together the missing fragments of my story through hushed exchanges between my


uncle and aunt. Our towering apartment building had collapsed in the aftermath of the


earthquake. Barefoot, bloodied, and bewildered, I had mysteriously emerged in the


front garden. The disaster had claimed the lives of fifteen of our neighbours. John


had been found beneath a heavy wooden door on the second floor, clinging to life by


a thread. Extensive brain damage had rendered him brain-dead upon reaching the


hospital. In that agonizing moment, my parents displayed unimaginable courage by


choosing to donate John’s unharmed organs. His heart now beat in the chest of a


young man in northern Greece, while his kidneys granted a new lease on life to a


young woman in Italy. The prevailing assumption was that I had managed to escape


first and John had followed, only to get trapped on the second floor. No one suspected


the heart-breaking truth: he had ascended those perilous stairs to retrieve my shoes.


No one suspected that I was responsible for his death.


In our new reality, my rehabilitation became my parents’ sole focus. A parade of


specialists, from psychiatrists and neurologists to speech therapists and


ophthalmologists, became a fixture in my life. My body underwent a series of tests,


from brain scans to chest X-rays, all yielding the same conclusion: I was perfectly


healthy, save for my persistent silence. I could write, see clearly, play the piano and


read. I just wouldn’t talk. The diagnosis was “psychogenic mutism”. They attributed


this silence to a mix of PTSD and the crushing weight of grief for my departed


brother. The path to recovery involved Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, coupled with


a modest dose of Zoloft, in an attempt to restructure my thoughts and rewire my brain.


Armed with a small notebook, I communicated through writing, as my parents


decided against the Zoloft prescription. The group of psychologists overseeing my


recovery assigned ample homework, which included the task of discovering a new


hobby and documenting my daily thoughts. What thoughts could I possibly harbor? I


grappled with a solitary thought that consumed my every waking moment; the


relentless, agonizing belief that I bore responsibility for John’s tragic death.


I followed their advice, embarking on a seemingly pointless journey to silence the


tumult within my mind. Seeking solace in the local swimming pool, I discovered that


the rhythmic strokes in the cool waters offered a momentary respite from the chaos of


my thoughts. Schoolwork became my anchor and the piano my sanctuary. Managing


the daytime hours was bearable but the nights proved to be a different battleground.


Sleep continually eluded me; I kept on tossing and turning, drifting off briefly only to


awaken heaving with anxiety. Thus, I started venturing outside for long walks. Living


near the beach, I strolled along the promenade, headphones in my ears, sometimes


losing myself for hours, other times standing still and gazing upon the waves crashing


against the cliffs. One recurring thought beckoned me- the idea of taking a leap into


the icy water and surrendering to the currents. One night, in my quest to conquer my


mutism, I summoned the courage to walk to the local kiosk and request a pack of


cigarettes. Surprisingly, it worked. I found my voice.


Simultaneously, John’s presence rekindled within our home. Pictures of him adorned


our walls and graced my mother’s bedside table. Amid the rubble of our shattered


household, my father had painstakingly salvaged relics connecting us to our past:


valuable documents, clothing, books, and, most importantly, our childhood photo


albums. My parents and I would often leaf through our childhood albums, yearning


for our earliest moments to remain unblemished by the confabulatory power of


memory. I spent hours studying John’s pictures, determined not to forget a single


detail: his freckled forehead, fair eyelashes, baby blue eyes, and the dimples that


embellished his cheeks every time he smiled. Over time, I realized I couldn’t evade


John; he was everywhere, lingering in every corner of my life. Anything could trigger


his memory and unleash torrents of pain and guilt through my entire being.


Desperate for an escape, I sought an unlikely refuge in a classmate named Bill, one of


the school’s most notorious dealers. I approached him one day and politely requested


some weed, an odd plea coming from a quiet, bookish wallflower like me. He initially


looked horrified but, after a lengthy conversation trying to discourage me from


venturing into that path, he finally relented. Bill agreed to meet me after school,


provide me with some weed, and teach me how to roll joints. Being a diligent student,


I quickly became his most loyal and steadfast customer.


Despite my notable accomplishments in diverse domains - winning swimming


championships, enchanting with piano virtuosity, and upholding an outstanding


academic record- a fundamental issue persisted. Four years had transpired since


John’s passing and my insomnia persisted unyielding, impervious even to the solace


of weed. Each time I drifted into slumber, my sleep was marred by haunting


nightmares. The toll of my insomnia was evident in my emaciated appearance; I had


shed so many pounds that I looked gaunt and sickly. My complexion was drained of


life and warmth and my hair hung lifelessly. I was susceptible to colds and mysterious


aches and pains. Initially, my therapists attributed these symptoms to my body


grappling with the trauma I had endured, deeming them psychosomatic. However, as


the symptoms persisted, they referred me to a sleep specialist. Eagerly, I anticipated


my appointment, yearning for a remedy that would help me reclaim the innocence of


my childhood slumber. To my sheer disappointment, following a consultation with


my mother who insisted on avoiding any sort of medication, the specialist prescribed


nothing more than a melatonin supplement.


Seeking guidance, I turned to my trusted dealer, Bill. Without hesitation, he provided


the remedy I sought, in the form of pills: Benzos for my melancholia and Trazodone


for my insomnia. Never did we delve into the details of precise dosages or potential


interactions so I decided to trust my instincts and take a tablet of each twice a day.


The precise source of my newfound relief remained a tantalizing enigma. Was it the


Xanax, the weed, the Desyrel, the unassuming melatonin supplement, or perhaps the


extended hours at the school library and the pool? I couldn’t pinpoint it but, finally, I


slept like a baby.


I slept day and night, at home, at school, on the bus, everywhere. Yet, this newfound


rest brought along a unique set of tribulations as I found myself in a perpetual state of


dizziness and disorientation that turned even simple tasks into formidable endeavors.


Unable to combat this sense of drowsiness, I turned to Bill for advice. He handed me


a tiny pillbox filled with Adderall and suggested taking two or three tablets before


important exams. I was familiar with Adderall so I couldn’t help but smile at the


connection. When John was eleven, he had been diagnosed with ADHD and had


sampled a parade of ineffective remedies. Strattera had caused him to shed so much


weight that he had become almost translucent. Ritalin had turned him into a jittery


wreck. Adderall had brought the desired stability. I think that this history of failed


remedies was what likely contributed to my mum’s distrust of drugs. As I smiled at


the little pillbox, I thought that at least for a fleeting moment in our “lifetimes”, John


and I had shared a common bond.


While Adderall did indeed aid my concentration, it surely exacerbated my nausea. I


spent at least an hour every day at the school infirmary, battling waves of sickness and


exhaustion. My parents, suspecting something more sinister, forced me to take a


pregnancy test in their presence. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the sheer


absurdity of the idea as sex had clearly been the last thing on my mind. Even if I had


entertained such desires, there were no willing partners; I remained a solitary figure,


an outcast, teetering on the brink of paranoia. After a stint as a selective mute, I hadn’t


improved much. Interaction with classmates was a rarity and my speech was reduced


to monosyllabic utterances. My sole company appeared to be my dealer, Bill whose


motives revolved solely around financial transactions.


Therefore, the notion of pregnancy, under these circumstances, appeared highly


improbable. What I did conceal, however, was a new kind of thought that had


germinated one morning while we were analyzing Anna Karenina in class: what if


there was another way to resolve my woes? What if I could quell the dissonance


within my thoughts once and for all? My parents had been through this before; they


would manage, just as they had with John. They were still relatively young, barely in


their early forties; they could even have a new baby and start afresh. I wouldn’t create


a maelstrom, sparing them from macabre trauma. It didn’t have to resemble Anna


Karenina’s fate; I would hate to throw myself under a train. We didn’t have a gas


stove, ruling out Sylvia Plath’s method and my swimming prowess made the idea of


putting stones in my pockets and walking into the water like Virginia Woolf, equally


implausible. Lost in my thoughts, I was abruptly snapped back to reality by my


teacher persistently calling my name. Roaring laughter swept through the classroom.


At that moment, a jolt of clarity struck me, and I was overcome with panic at the stark


realization of the darkness that had clouded my mind. How could I even consider


subjecting my parents to such pain after everything they had endured? How could I


entertain the thought of suicide?


During the school break, I hurried to the library and scoured the internet for


information on “Tradozone”, “Alprazolam” and “amphetamines”. The words on the


screen danced before my eyes: “suicidal thoughts”, “fatigue”, “paranoia”, and


“nausea”. Paralyzing panic took hold of me. Without a moment’s hesitation, I


retreated to an empty bathroom and discarded the contents of my two small pillboxes


in the toilet, watching them swirl away and vanish beneath the relentless flush. I


feigned stomach problems and fled back home. There, I bid farewell to the remnants


of my weed by sending them down the toilet. I decided to hold onto the Adderall for


sentimental reasons.


Without realizing it though, I had somehow got addicted to both the Tradozone and


the Alprazolam. A few hours after flushing them down the school toilet, I was greeted


by an unwelcome surge of agitation and anxiety that kept me awake all night long.


The following day, while diligently preparing for a Latin test, my misguided attempt


to bolster focus with Adderall, triggered a terrifying ordeal. A generalized sense of


anxiety swept over me, giving rise to wild heart palpitations, an incessant headache,


and suffocating chest tightness. Convinced I was experiencing a heart attack, I was


weighing whether I should just lie in bed to await a potentially fatal coronary event or


just call an ambulance when my mum walked in the room to bring me a sandwich and


a glass of orange juice. Her gaze froze upon me. Huddled, soaked in sweat, with teeth


chattering and pallid skin, I trembled with convulsions. Witnessing her panic


deepened my distress. Following John’s death, I had vowed to shield her from further


sorrow. I had striven to be a paragon of virtue, at least on a superficial level- an


exemplary student, an outstanding athlete, and a skilled pianist. My teachers praised


my mother for how composed and polite I was. Of course, little did they know that I


had led my brother to his untimely death and that I had been dabbling in prescription


drugs to deal with the anguish. That was a burden I bore in silence.


What felt like an eternity later, I suddenly awoke to the sterile hum of fluorescent


lights. I found myself lying on a hospital gurney with a young, stern-looking doctor


examining my pupils with a flashlight. He inquired about my history with Tradozone,


Alprazolam, and amphetamines. Though I initially feigned ignorance, I could tell his


concern was genuine and alarming. The truth unfolded before me: my urine and blood


had exposed the presence of these substances, along with cannabis metabolites. What


I had experienced was not a heart attack but withdrawal syndrome. He had already


apprised my mum of the situation and she was in the psychiatrist’s office trying to


find the best course of action. Immense shame engulfed me. I thought about John.


About a year before his death, my mother had stumbled upon a joint hidden in his


sock drawer and our house had reverberated with their titanic dispute. At that time, I


had been quick to scorn John’s drug experimentation, dismissing him as a walking


cliché with his baggy trousers, piercings, dreadlocks, and joints. Lying on that


hospital gurney, emaciated and anxious, nodding in agreement to the doctor’s


admonitions about experimenting with prescription drugs, I wondered what John


might have thought of me had he been alive.


My parents neither addressed the matter with me directly nor reprimanded me but


their eyes, heavy with deep concern, spoke volumes. My prescribed regimen now


consisted of a modest Zoloft dose, fortified by a weekly Anexate injection. I was


obliged to provide weekly urine samples to demonstrate my commitment to


abstaining from any further substance experimentation. Sleep, once again, became my


major problem. Desperate for distraction, I sought refuge in diversions. Running


became a daily ritual and my sessions at the swimming pool doubled. I studied until


my eyes blurred with exhaustion and I took up German classes to keep my mind


occupied. There was no respite, no moment that didn’t evoke regret for venturing


outside the apartment barefoot, no instant free from the echo of John’s voice in my


mind. The spirit of John seemed omnipresent, haunting me at every turn. I felt as


though I was spiraling into madness. I marveled at how my parents had managed to


uphold a façade of normalcy all those years, embracing their grief with dignity and


grace. What secret strength sustained them? How did they muster the strength to wake


up in the morning, prepare breakfast, commute to work, pack nutritious lunches, and


shuttle me, their failed daughter, to doctors and extracurricular activities?


Everything changed when I crossed paths with Paul. He was a fellow early-morning


swimmer at the local sports complex. His striking appearance, tall and willowy with a


body adorned in tattoos, piqued my curiosity. A prominent scar, winding down his


flank and around his abdomen, added an air of mystery to his allure. The deep desire


to approach him, speak to him, and run my hand through his hair stirred within me.


One day, as I hoisted myself out of the pool, he talked to me. I felt deeply ashamed


and exposed as I looked unhealthy inside and out, my old scars and sharp bones laid


bare for all to see. Paul suggested grabbing breakfast together at the sports complex


canteen. Once again, I found myself unable to utter a word so I nodded. Yet, his warm


smile and the cheerful way he said “Alright, I’ll see you at the canteen in 10


minutes!” filled me with a glimmer of hope.


Paul breathed new life into my desolate world. He was an architecture student with a


passion for post-punk music, clubs and art galleries. My hesitant decision to take this


unexpected journey into romantic relationships filled my parents with immense


elation. Paul bore his past with unwavering honesty. After a few weeks of dating, he


confided in me about his own battle with a devastating motorcycle accident in his late


teens. It had landed him in the ICU with a destroyed kidney, a ruptured spleen, a few


slipped discs and a shattered pelvis. Tragically, his best friend, his companion that


day, had not survived. This ordeal, combined with multiple surgeries, had led him


down a path of addiction to pain medication. I didn’t dare to probe further into that


painful chapter of his life. It was during this exchange of intimate revelations that I


chose to unveil a part of my own story, telling him about the earthquake that had


decimated my home and claimed my brother’s life. However, I carefully omitted the


fact that my brother would have most likely still been alive had I remembered to put


my shoes on. I also decided to withhold my embarrassing stint in addiction. By this


point, Paul should have sensed that something had been amiss with me but I was


determined to shield him from the complete depth of my personal catastrophe.


Paul became my anchor, my lifeline. In his presence, I reclaimed my voice and


rediscovered my smile. No longer did I swim frenetically to escape my thoughts of


John; instead, I savored the soothing embrace of the water against my skin as I


languidly glided through the pool. I rediscovered the joy of playing the piano, with the


keys eagerly awaiting the touch of my fingers. It was as if I had been in a state of


hibernation for a substantial part of my life and I was awakening anew.


Over time, I couldn’t help but sense that my overwhelming reliance on Paul was


taking a toll on him, even though he tried valiantly to mask it. I knew deep inside that


I wasn’t miraculously healed; I had merely shifted my focus from tasks and pills to


Paul. My self-absorption, combined with my focus on my own healing journey,


blinded me to the fact that Paul was also fighting his own demons. I had somehow


underestimated the extent of his struggle with addiction. He was candid about his


experiences and I had heard about his meetings, his mentor, and his visits to an


outpatient clinic. Nevertheless, he appeared to be in control of everything so I never


dared to pry into the specifics of the painkillers he had been addicted to or the


problems he faced. I thought I was being discreet, but in reality, I was reluctant to let


anything mar the newfound happiness that Paul had brought into my life.


Therefore, when Paul, looking profoundly disheartened, announced his need to check


himself into a rehabilitation facility for a while, the shock hit me like a tidal wave. My


reaction was one of sheer horror. In reality, I had become so consumed by my own


fears of life without Paul that my focus had shifted away from his well-being and


safety. I realized I had been totally unsupportive of his journey towards health and


sobriety by persistently making myself the centre of attention. The agony in Paul’s


eyes was unmistakable as he bore witness to my paranoid reaction. Ultimately, he


decided to grant the outpatient clinic another chance and I agreed. I struggled to


recognize the person I had become.


Later that week, Paul’s mentor, Mr Thomas reached out to me, and we arranged to


meet at a local café. Seated across from me at the café, Mr Thomas wasted no time.


He forthrightly explained that Paul had been grappling with a three-year addiction to


painkillers, stemming from a serious injury, multiple operations, and, obviously,


psychological trauma. I mustered the courage to enquire about the specific type of


painkillers, secretly hoping for something as innocuous as paracetamol or ibuprofen.


Mr Thomas responded matter-of-factly, listing “Vicodin, Demerol, and Dilaudid” as


the substances Paul had been addicted to. I had never heard of them. He went on to


explain that they were brand names for hydrocodone, pethidine, and hydromorphone-


substances classified as opioids. I was mortified. In my sheltered, privileged, and


rather childish perspective, opioid addiction had always been synonymous with


“heroin addiction”, a struggle I associated with my favorite rock stars, or tormented


individuals living on the fringes of society. I couldn’t fathom how someone like Paul


could be addicted to opioids. Mr Thomas had little patience for my narrow-minded


assumptions and proceeded to clarify that during his recovery journey, Paul had been


advised against forming personal relationships, especially with someone carrying their


own emotional baggage. Frustration welled up within me. Unable to hold back my


tears, I asserted that I could empathize with Paul because I, too, battled grief,


depression, suicide ideation, and a minor prescription drug addiction. Mr Thomas’s


face softened and he placed his rough hands on my trembling bony hands in a fatherly


manner. “That’s what I’m talking about.” he said gently “You have to confront your


own turmoil, your survivor’s guilt, your grief, your addiction, your pain and let Paul


address his own.”


Suddenly, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been incredibly selfish and self-


absorbed, clinging to my pre-adolescent mindset where I believed I was the center of


the universe. Drowning in my own suffering, I had failed to grasp that those around


me also bore their own burdens and pain. Fueled by sorrow and obsession with the


circumstances surrounding John’s death, I had driven away those who genuinely


wished to help me. I had depleted their energy and goodwill at my convenience.


Above all, I had gravely taken for granted my parents’ unwavering efforts to assist


me. From arranging doctors and offering unconditional love to funding my piano


lessons and swimming pool sessions as well as providing material comforts- they had


offered me everything generously, despite grappling with their own anguish and grief.


They had already lost one child and they were desperately struggling to keep me


afloat. Yet, I had been dismissive of their pain. Each day they would rise, push


forward, work hard, and conceal their suffering to keep me warm, fed, clothed,


educated, occupied, and taken care of. Meanwhile, I wallowed in my own despair,


shedding tears, starving myself, and squandering the opportunities they provided for


my healing.


A profound sense of nausea washed over me. I yearned to return home and hug my


mother. I wanted to call Paul and offer a sincere apology for my lack of empathy and


foresight. Overwhelming guilt enveloped me, yet this guilt differed from the one I had


experienced following John’s death. John was gone, and nothing would ever change


that. However, this fresh sense of regret I was experiencing held the potential for


change- it could change me, it could change my relationship with my parents, and it


could liberate Paul. No one else had to die. I had to find something meaningful to do


with my human life, a purpose that would bring about positive change. I looked up at


Mr. Thomas, tears streaming down my face. Without hesitation, I finished my coffee


and extended my hand. Paul was now free, and so was I.

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