~~~

Lady Clementine’s fishing vessel departed Fairport Harbor and was directed northwest toward Mother’s mysterious island. The morning presented calm seas with a warm summer breeze. An indifferent sun started its dying circuit across the day. Aside from the souls on board the solitary vessel, Lake Erie appeared to be just another void in the new world.

The red robed woman led Meredith toward the bow of the vessel where a large beach blanket was spread out over the deck.

“Please,” the robed woman started, waving an old bony hand toward the blanket. “I know it’s not like our late-night conversations in your old room with a flashlight to scare off the monsters… but it’s the best I could do under the circumstances.” The old woman flashed her a smile.

Meredith trembled looking into this woman’s ancient face. My, God! She looks a hundred years old! What have you done to yourself, Clem? She shook off the thought, and looked away from the robed woman, staring down at the blanket. Meredith moved toward the right side, as close to the outer edge of the blanket as she could. Here we go. Stay alert. Expect anything.

Clementine slowly sat down across from her, adjusting the folds of her large red robe around her legs.

Both women sat in silence for a moment, studying each other’s faces, as if peering into portals at the past.

Meredith looked back toward the stern of the boat, turned back, and said, “Should anything happen to my friends on this boat ride…”

Clementine laughed lightly, raising her eyebrows. “My, oh, my! It really is you behind that stranger’s face, isn’t it?” she said. “I was starting to have my doubts—but that old fire behind your eyes…”

Meredith sighed. “My friends?”

“Yes, yes.” Clementine waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing will happen to them. Their needs and comfort are being attended to while we catch up. You’ve nothing to fear from me, Meredith.”

Tell that to our sisters you murdered at the orphanage, she thought.

Clementine could feel her old friend’s accusing eyes, but nothing else. Her attempts to probe Meredith’s mind was like trying to scale Mount Everest with only a spoon. Her smile faltered slightly, then returned. “You are not the woman I expected,” she said. “Not at all like the frightened and confused little girl I remember who despised what she was… and what she was capable of.”

Meredith said nothing, refusing to walk into that verbal trap. She sensed Clementine’s probing immediately. She smiled and said, “I’ve as many questions as you do, Clem… and nothing to hide. Rather than attempting to invade my mind, why don’t you just ask.”

Clem laughed in surprise and lightly clapped her hands. “Indeed! Not what I expected… at all! Shame on me for believing you had neglected your gifts. Clearly, I was wrong. Forgive me, I had to make the attempt.”

“I know what you’re doing,” Meredith said. “Let’s stop pretending we’re two little girls having a sleepover like dear old friends and get down to it. You can keep on poking at me with your abilities, but you won’t gain anything that way.”

Clementine’s face went dark for a moment.

“And there you are,” Meredith said, with a smile. “I don’t need to probe your thoughts to see that you haven’t changed over the years. You are still that unstable girl that I remember.”

The robed woman quickly reeled in her temper and smiled. “So, you do remember. Has your memory been completely restored?”

“Yes.”

Clementine nodded. “Okay, Meredith. I won’t insult you again. Clearly we are both women who have set aside our childish ways… and have become… formidable.”

Meredith had no response to that.

Clementine laughed. “Let’s not do this. I don’t want to fight with you or play games. Believe it or not, a part of me was really looking forward to seeing you again.”

Meredith frowned. “How are you here? And what is your role in all of this? I assume you work for Mother, now… or rather, Toby.”

Clementine gave her old friend an amused look. “I assume you’re blocking him out right now, too… is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Then we can talk openly with each other. You are much stronger than I ever imagined. I’m a little impressed, but not surprised. Between the new face, which I would love to talk to you about at length, and the immense walls you’ve built up in your mind, it all still reminds me of the girl I once knew.”

Meredith sighed. “How so?”

“While I have embraced my ‘gifts’ and my destiny, all you’ve seemed to achieve with yours is an uncanny ability to hide. I can see why Mother…and Toby… has had a hard time keeping track of you over the years.” She shifted gears. “You know, there is no shame in who we are, Meredith. And now, we don’t have to hide it from the world any longer. That garbage we were taught at the orphanage… about hiding it from the world… that was just a means to keep us under control.”

Meredith stared into Clem’s old face and said, “I’ve paid a heavy price for ‘who’ I am… and so have you, judging by your appearance. Clearly you know this as well as I.”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, there is a price. Always a price. My abilities have taken a heavy toll on these old bones. But it won’t matter for much longer.”

“Why is that?”

Clementine just smiled. “We’ve a long boat ride ahead of us. Let’s try to clear the air, shall we? We both have many questions. I’ll answer what I can… truthfully. And maybe after… we will have cleared up a lot of misunderstandings.”

Meredith took advantage of the opportunity to knock Clem off-balance. “Okay, I’ll go first. Last I knew, you were captured by Mother after slaughtering an orphanage full of young girls. How does one go from an enemy of Mother… to apparently… a position of power?”

Clementine nodded. “Good. Let’s get that awful mess over with. I assume you read the files in Labyrinth Level 1?”

“Yes.”

Clementine shook her head and frowned. “That cavern beneath the orphanage is a very unstable place. You were incredibly fortunate to get out of there in one piece… or… in several pieces. Places like that attack the mind in unspeakable ways. Most people never leave the same way they entered. How did you-”

“The girls,” Meredith pushed. “Why? Why would you do such a horrible thing?”

Clementine’s eyes turned to stone. “Did your files mention that they attacked me, first?”

Meredith shook her head.

“No, of course not,” the robed woman continued. She looked away. “When I found out you were missing… I was… heartbroken.”

“You mean after what you did to Claudia?”

Clementine ignored the shot. “You were my only friend in that despicable place. After Mother snatched you away, I was lost… alone. No one else seemed to care that you were gone, except me. Then, while I was out walking one night, I found you in the fields. I don’t know how you got away, or where you were, but somehow you made it back. But Finch was there. He’d knocked you out, or something. I thought he was our friend, but he was trying to take you back to them! I tried to talk to him, reason with him first… but he wouldn’t listen to me. He threatened me and told me to go back inside.” Clementine looked up into Meredith’s eyes and put on her best performance. “What was I to do? I was afraid! Afraid they’d come after me next for knowing what I knew; afraid to do nothing and just let him take you away again. I already knew what everyone thought of me. Everyone hated me and wanted me gone. It was up to me to save you, Meredith! And I did what I had to do to stop that man!”

Meredith’s face was unreadable. “So… you killed Finch… to save me. Then when everyone else arrived… they saw the perfect opportunity to blame you for everything.”

“Yes!” Clementine said. “That’s exactly what happened, Meredith! I tried to explain what happened. I didn’t mean to kill Finch… I just… took it too far. But they didn’t want to listen. Miss Evans brought men with guns. They would’ve shot me down, if not for you. Then… then the girls all turned on me, too! They all let their hate for me out and came at me. What was I supposed to do? I was afraid… and so… well, you know the rest.”

“I don’t believe you,” Meredith said, with no emotion. “I believe that’s the story you’ve been telling yourself all these years to justify what you did, and maybe, you’ve come to believe it.”

Clementine just stared. She was surprised Meredith’s rejection hurt as much as it did. She balled up her fists beneath her robe and closed her eyes, trying to keep her composure. She opened them and finally said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, Meredith. I just wanted you to hear it from me… and not from some cold words written down in a report that sealed my fate and ended my childhood.”

Meredith nodded. “And after all that death… what happened?”

Clementine looked around the small bow, breathing in the fresh air. She smiled and said, “While you were hiding from your destiny, living out your lie of a life under a dead’s girl’s name, I spent what was left of my youth in a dark room, smaller than the bow of this ship, at the end of a long, forgotten underground hallway. I was continuously drugged to keep my mind dull, poked and prodded by scientists who did everything short of dissecting me to figure out what made me tick, and then eventually just left alone to rot in the darkness.”

“That’s… that’s awful.”

Clementine nodded absently, then stared past Meredith into the gently rolling waves. “You say you don’t believe my story. So be it. It really doesn’t matter. I’m not seeking your forgiveness. You weren’t even conscious… so what the hell do you know.” She turned to Meredith with an angry gleam in her eye. “I paid for what I did to those girls, to Finch… and then some. And all of it to protect you. But I was just a frightened girl with the ability to do monstrous things to people. I didn’t understand… I didn’t have anyone to help me understand. You were my only friend, Meredith, and you were long gone, too.” She turned away and sighed. “After Mother branded me ‘Monster’, and they no longer saw a terrified child… well… let me just say that once a human being is no longer seen as one, it becomes very easy to dispose of conscience, like throwing away some worn out pair of socks. That’s how they became… as they performed ‘monstrous’ things on me.”

Meredith felt surprisingly sad. “I… I didn’t know that part. I’m very sorry that happened to you. Even after what you did… no one deserves that.”

“Thank you.” Clementine wiped a surprising bit of moisture from the corner of her left eye and stared at it. She laughed. “That was… much harder to talk about then I imagined.” She stared at Meredith. “But I’m glad I got to share that with you. It’s one less burden on my chest.”

“What did you mean when you said, ‘lie of a life under a dead girl’s name’?”

Clementine nodded. “Yes, good idea. Let’s move on from this dreary subject. I was referring to your little magic trick, of course. You know, the one where you left your body, escaped Mother’s highly secure facility, and then ended up in the body you presently wear.”

“You called it a ‘lie’,” Meredith clarified.

Clementine gave her a pained expression. “Surely, you’ve figured it out by now, haven’t you?”

Meredith frowned. “I know that Hannah… that she… worked for Mother.”

The robed woman pretended to care. “The short of it, Meredith, is that they found you eventually, then placed someone they could trust to keep an eye on you after you left the dead child’s home.”

Meredith looked away and nodded.

“It wasn’t until your abilities reemerged that they were able to locate you. Mother had already spent a great deal of time and resources establishing that network to monitor… people like us.”

“I thought I was free,” Meredith said, remembering her haunted past. “I was foolish to believe that. After I… became the brain-dead girl… after I became Michelle… I embraced it—almost believed it, too. It was wonderful to be loved, to have a mother, even if she wasn’t my own.”

Clementine nodded. “A wonderful lie, indeed. I can’t blame you for holding on to it for as long as you could.”

Meredith looked at her. “It didn’t last. I couldn’t pretend to be Michelle any more than her mother could pretend to love this strange girl wearing her dead child’s face. I think we both needed it for a while, but the strain, the distance was always there. She knew. Call it a mother’s intuition… I don’t know. But Michelle’s mother sensed there was something ‘off’ about her little girl. We kept up the farce for as long as we could… but then my abilities started to come back.”

Clementine leaned in. “And in all that time you spent wearing this face, you remembered nothing… from before?”

“For the most part, yes. What I did remember were scattered images that made little sense, like waking up from some strange dream that quickly fades. I knew who I was beneath this face, but so much of my life was hidden in the dark.”

Clementine leaned back. “And when your abilities resurfaced, I assume the strain between you and your new family got worse.”

“I didn’t let it get that far,” Meredith said. “I was a legal adult by then. I went away… and never came back. Many lonely years past… until I met Hannah.” She stopped, as a whirlwind of emotions attempted to overwhelm her. “Even now, knowing what I know about her, I still want to believe that what we had together… was real on some level.”

Clementine’s face turned to stone. “It was all bullshit, Meredith,” she said coldly.

Meredith gave her a hateful glance.

“I’m just being honest with you. The sooner you understand how… diabolical… Mother was and stop putting your emotions out there as an easy target, the stronger you will be.”

“You mean, so I can become a cold and heartless killer… like you?”

“Hannah was a tool, just as much as you were… as was I. Mother didn’t care about any of us. I wasn’t involved with anything that happened to you during those years, Meredith, but I’ve read your file, too.”

“You keep speaking of Mother in the past tense,” Meredith said.

Clementine smiled. “A lot has changed, Meredith, in the years you’ve been away. In fact, it was your escape that started quite a shitstorm back then, so I’ve come to understand.”

Meredith waited.

Clementine sighed. “The past is such a heavy burden, don’t you think? We carry so much, you and me. It’s refreshing to have someone to talk to about all of this, someone who can understand.”

“There is a lot I still don’t understand,” Meredith confessed.

Clementine laughed. “Well, I’ll try to fill you in.” The robed woman tilted her head toward the partly cloudy sky, closed her eyes, and continued. “I spent so much time in that dark room that it’s still difficult for me, after all this time, to adjust… out here.”

“What you went through sounds unbearable.”

She opened her eyes and smiled. “I wasn’t completely honest with you, Meredith. I wasn’t entirely alone in the darkness. Toby was there. He spoke with me often after I was locked up. Something he hadn’t done since before you showed up at that orphanage and ruined everything.”

Meredith didn’t know how to respond to that.

“I don’t blame you… not anymore. I was just a young and confused girl back then. I hated you for how much Toby favored you over me. I was the special one before you came along. I was the one who was supposed to achieve great things under his guidance. But that was all bullshit, too. Just like the life Forrester and Finch set up for you under the dead girl’s name. All they wanted was to keep you as far away from Mother as they could. No one had our best interests in mind, Meredith. No one really cared about a couple of freak girls.”

“Someone was looking out for you,” Meredith corrected. “It would appear that you’ve done rather well for yourself.”

Clementine laughed and shook her head. “Appearances are certainly deceiving. Yes, yes, I’m… respected… these days. But it wasn’t always like this. After the old regime lost control, Toby was furious. When you disappeared, it set the organization into a tailspin. Apparently, there were doubters within the fold who were just looking for an opportunity to rise out of the shadows and… change… the direction Mother was headed in. There was quite a few who did not desire to serve Toby’s interests.”

Meredith raised an eyebrow. “Are you saying that Mother was dealing with its own insurrection?”

“Something like that. Those fools. They had no idea what they’d unearthed. All they saw was power. But they had no idea what they were meddling with… or who. When they’d discovered the first doorway into the darkness that you and I are well-acquainted with, they thought they’d tapped into some other dimension, believing that if they could find a way to simply step through it… that they would tap into a whole new world of resources beyond anyone’s comprehension.”

“You’re saying that Mother had no idea they were opening Pandora’s Box?”

“No. They knew what they were doing was dangerous. What I’m saying is that those idiots decided to redefine what that ‘box’ was… and that they were the ones who were still in control when they opened it.”

Meredith nodded. “And then they discovered… Toby.”

“Yes,” Clementine said. “And when that happened, he promised them everything they sought… and more, and they bought into it like greedy little children with their hands caught in the cookie jar.”

“I think I’m starting to understand,” Meredith said. “When Toby entered the picture, not all in Mother were on board. Is that what you’re saying?”

Clementine smiled. “Yes. And while the unbelievers conspired in silence to break away from the organization, Toby was aware of it, but it was manageable. It wasn’t until you got away that it became a problem. The dissenters became vocal and many left Mother. Some who had already been active in causing that rift to widen, were working from within to close that box. Some like your Dr. Forrester and Finch…”

Meredith’s eyes went wide.

“So, after you slipped through Mother’s fingers, that’s when Toby forced some… organizational changes. Mother had grown weak and conflicted from within. This put Toby’s plans in jeopardy since he still needed these fools to work together to support his cause.”

“And that’s where you come in,” Meredith said.

“Yes, Meredith. That’s when I became… valuable again. Mother had become a bunch of bickering children, in Toby’s eyes. He needed something to unite them again before Mother fell apart and ruined everything. Since he couldn’t entice them any longer with false promises of power and wealth, he resorted to the oldest tactic in the book to get them back in line.”

Meredith frowned. “Fear.”

Clementine stared into her lap. “I remember Toby whispering to me in the dark about what was happening. Near the end of my incarceration, we had spent a lot of time together. He’d been preparing me for a while, telling me that my time was finally at hand.” She looked up and gave Meredith a chilling glance. “And I had grown very powerful in that little dark room, Meredith. Toby had shown me so much. He’d taught me many things about myself… and what I could do. He’d taken a confused and angry child and tempered that anger into an efficient weapon… to serve Mother’s true cause.”

Meredith sighed heavily. “What did you do, Clem?”

“I remember one despicable man who was charge during my imprisonment. His name was Bawl. He’d been the one responsible for losing you, and as punishment for failing Toby, he’d been assigned to babysit me. Well, this Mr. Bawl, had gone above and beyond his duties overseeing the experiments… Let’s just say that he was a bit too enthusiastic when it came time to make me suffer. I’ll spare you the details of what that evil man did to this frightened child and just say that I screamed a lot back then.”

Meredith shifted uncomfortably.

“Toby sent Bawl to fetch me from that dirty dark cell for the last time.” She was staring into Meredith’s eyes with a devilish look. “I was… more physically mature by then… and not a little girl. Bawl often exploited that, too. Anyway, he was the first I got to test my strength on. I did things to that man’s mind that made what I did to Finch look tame.”

“So, after he let you out… you killed this Mr. Bawl?”

“Actually,” Clementine said, leaning back. “He’s still alive today… well… if you could call it alive. What was left of the man, after I finished with him, is still breathing in that dark little room I left him in. I sometimes visit him when I’m in an exceptionally foul mood.”

Meredith didn’t dare comment further on Mr. Bawl.

“I won’t bore you with the rest,” Clementine said. “After I was released, I spent the next few years under Toby’s guidance making changes from within the organization. I made ‘examples’ out of many of them. Converted others back to the cause. And hunted down as many of the traitors as I could. In the years to follow, we created scriptures to replace procedures; invented the Ama-Eskua, which you know as The Shadow Dead, who were originally intended to be an intimidation tactic to enforce sacred laws but have since turned into a den of disgusting assassins.”

Meredith glared and said, “So, you are responsible for the attack on the compound!”

Clementine laughed. “Really, Meredith? Don’t try to pin that on me. If you hadn’t been there, hiding, Toby never would have sanctioned the attack in the first place.”

Meredith’s fire quickly dissipated.

Clementine continued, “We gave Mother a dogmatic sense of ‘purpose’ rather than a scientific quest for ‘knowledge’ and a corrupted greed for ‘power’. We re-emphasized the importance of the Lions, which Mother had nearly forgotten. You remember the Lions, don’t you, Meredith?”

Meredith wouldn’t look her in the eye.

“Everyone now had a purpose and a place in the organization. We prepared for what was coming, rather than what we could take. You were either a ‘Candidate’ or ‘Fodder’ when the Lions came. And you would prove yourself worthy of Toby’s new world… and his gracious gift of life… by giving over to the pending darkness.” She stopped there to let her old friend process.

Meredith shook her head. “It sounds like you did a wonderful job of making a sinister group of human beings a whole hell of a lot worse; turned them into a bunch of religious zealots supporting a monster’s cause.”

Clementine just smiled. “It’s all rubbish, of course.”

Meredith was shocked by her response. “Come again?”

“All of it,” Clementine said. “It’s all nonsense. Just more tactics to maintain control. We needed them to remain loyal… no matter what. When ‘The Change’ finally arrived, and we always knew it was coming thanks to Toby and what he did with you over ‘there’, it only cemented all that dogma and elevated the fear to a whole new level of devotion.” The robed woman rolled her eyes and shook her head. “What a waste. So much time. So much effort. And for what? Just to get you, the chosen one, where you are right now… so Toby can finally cross over into our world, The Final Lion, and dispose of us all.”

“I’m confused,” Meredith said. “Don’t you… want this?”

Clementine sighed. “Before… The Change… I almost believed in what me and Toby were doing together. I thought I was back in his good graces, and that we were changing the world… together. He used to lie to me during all the hard work I did getting Mother back on track, saying, ‘Well, done, Clem. You’ve come a long way to achieving the world I always wanted for you… and your kind. I think I will stay in the darkness… and let you continue the good work in my absence.’”

“He actually said that to you?”

She shook her head, then frowned at her friend. “I was the biggest fool of all. He used me to keep everyone doing exactly what he needed them to do, but he also had to keep me in line, too… until he could get you ready to bring him back.”

“I don’t understand.”

Clementine shook her head at her as if dealing with a child. “Everything you’ve been through, Meredith, has been a test… one, long damn trial… to get you strong enough to finish this mess that you and Toby started together. Everything has been leading up to this moment. For me, it’s the damn orphanage all over again.”

Meredith let Clem’s words sink in. “Are you saying that Toby’s been… that he’s been overseeing everything that’s happened to me and my friends… since the beginning?”

“Consider every event that’s forced you to open your mind, lower your walls, and caused you to use your abilities. And each time you have, you’ve only grown stronger for the next time… and the time after that…”

“No,” Meredith said. “I won’t believe that! I can’t believe that he’s been orchestrating everything—my whole life—just to get me back to that beach in the middle of the darkness…. I won’t!”

“I’m as shocked as you are, Meredith. He’s manipulated us both… perfectly. I only started to see the truth after your damn Lions finally came into our world. We were ready for it, too. We had protocols in place, cell groups, hell… we even knew to chain ourselves up at the first sight of the rain before the storm… But none us really believed The Change would happen. It was always there, to motivate us, to unite us… but it was never supposed to happen. After that, I knew everything Toby told me was a lie. And the moment I deliver you to him, my purpose is finished.”

Meredith was at a loss for words.

Clementine took in a deep breath and let her shoulders slouch. “Again, I don’t blame you for all this. I know what he made you do. But honestly, after The Change happened, and people at random turned into vessels for these… creatures, I was hoping you were one of them. That’s when Mother lost you again… in the middle of all that chaos… until you arrived at the compound and used the old code that Hannah gave you. But I think, Toby knew exactly where you were the whole time. He kept it concealed from me, from all of us, until then.”

“But… why?”

“Because Mother would have done everything in its power, while we still had the power to choose, to kill you.”

Meredith nodded. “I understand. I have thought about ending my own life, to finish all this.” She looked at her old friend and sighed. “So, why not kill me now? Or is that what you’ve yet to tell me? Are my friends and I going to mysteriously drown in this lake before we reach Toby’s island?”

“I wish it were that simple, Meredith,” Clementine said. “But it’s too late for all that. Yes, I could dispose of you now, but Toby would destroy us all immediately. As long as you live Mother still has a purpose… as do I.”

“He spoke of another… like me. He said that if we fought back and he was forced to eliminate me, he would just have to wait until the other was ready. After I saw you at the marina, I just assumed he meant you.”

For the first time Clementine looked confused.

“You didn’t know?”

She frowned. “For as much as Toby has told me, there is just as much he keeps from me. But I can assure you, I am not the one he was speaking of. As strong as I’ve become, I have never been, nor will I ever be, what you are in Toby’s eyes.” She said the last bit with a touch of scorn. “Thank you for sharing that with me. You could’ve kept that to yourself.”

“Maybe you’ll remember that and consider sparing my friends on your boat. I tried to get them to stay behind, but they wouldn’t leave me.”

“I commend their devotion. Foolish, but admirable.” Clementine nodded. “I will allow them to leave… if you wish.”

“And Gina?”

“If she chooses to go, then I won’t stop her. Gina is not my prisoner. I found her in the woods. She was injured and my people took care of her.” After a deliberate pause, she added, “Gina chose to come back with us.”

“I find that very hard to believe.”

“You can ask her yourself when we arrive.”

Meredith paused, then said, “So, if I’m not to be murdered in route to this island, and Toby has no further use for you after I… fulfill my purpose… then why do I still feel like I’m missing something?”

Clementine smiled. “You always were smart… much smarter than I. But don’t let it get to your head, because if you haven’t heard, I can make heads pop like balloons.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

Clementine slowly stood to stretch her legs.

Meredith did the same.

The old robed woman looked directly ahead, toward the island which was still miles out of view. “I was hoping our conversation, despite whether or not we could ever be friends again, would at least bear fruit… enough to form an alliance.”

Meredith stared dumbfounded at the old woman’s robe blowing in the breeze. Her initial response was to charge the vile thing, grab her around the waist and knock them both into the lake… killing two birds at once. Instead, she said, “To what end?”

Clementine turned back. She wore an exhausted expression on her face that reminded Meredith of one she wore many times. “No tricks, Meredith. I’ve had time to consider this meeting, to dread it even, but the outcome has always been the same. There’s only one thing either of us can do now. We need each other.”

I was doing just fine without you, Meredith thought, but kept her mouth shut. “Need each other for what?”

Clementine smiled weakly. “To eliminate Toby.”

~~~

Next Episode 54-6

Previous Episode 54-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 54-5: Treachery” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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