Disclaimer: The characters and plot of this story are my creative property. Do not reproduce or use them without permission. Any resemblance to anyone real or fictional is entirely coincidental.
Graphic Content Warning: This story is dark and disturbing. It deals with controversial themes such as drug addiction, sexual assault, incest, child abuse, graphic violence, and other topics definitely not suitable for a young or easily upset audience. There is also explicit language and sex between women. If this is going to disturb you, please go find something more suitable to read.
Thank you to everyone who has read and commented on this story thus far, especially Nutty and Elsieaustin. Their advice and suggestions have been invaluable.
Copyright 2007 - Amy Boatman
The light from the full moon streamed in through the window and illuminated Bailey's sleeping form. I propped myself up on one arm, watching her. How angelic she looked. The little girl she once had been, hidden during the day by adult concerns, now played across her slumbering face. Her facial muscles were relaxed, the wrinkles I had seen earlier around her eyes were smoothed away.
As if sensing me watching her, her eyes opened, and she gave me a drowsy smile.
"Whatcha doin?" Her words slurred together.
"Oh, just life, the universe, and everything."
"Mmm. Thass nice." Her eyes drifted closed again, and her breathing became deep and even.
I gently removed her arm from my stomach and slid out of bed. I had to call the dispatcher. There was no way I was leaving this woman in a few hours just to go hang out with Rufus and listen to Jack bitch and moan. Bailey had the day off, and I was hoping she would spend it with me.
After telling the dispatcher I wasn't going to be at work, I made my way back to bed. I carefully crawled under the covers placing Bailey's arm back across my stomach. She mumbled but didn't move. Her body lying against mine felt so right. We fit perfectly together. I felt deliriously happy and completely terrified all at the same time. I couldn't recall ever feeling this way before. My heart had been ripped in two when I met Tricia, and she offered escape. She offered comfort in her own skewed way, but most of all she offered the opportunity to feel nothing. Being with someone who made me feel things was entirely new territory. Uncharted waters. Where was this going, and how would it end? I didn't know, and right now, I didn't care.
Later that morning, I was awoken by a hand brushing across my breast. My nipple immediately hardened, and I felt a small shock move through me. I noticed Bailey's head was on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to find her still asleep, her right hand cupping my breast. Her fingers twitched, and I felt myself growing wet. A low moan escaped from my lips, and Bailey's eyes opened.
She gave me a sleepy smile. "Hi."
She suddenly seemed to realize where her hand was but didn't pull away. "I guess I got a little familiar with you, huh?" She smiled as she moved the hand down to my stomach. "Probably not the best idea since I am the one who didn't want to appear easy."
My skin felt cold without her touch. "Well, you are lying in my bed. That's a little more familiar than most people get with me." I smiled back at her and moved my arm to cradle her shoulders. I pulled her in close, tucking her head under my chin. I marveled again at how comfortable this all felt. "How did you sleep?"
She yawned and stretched. Her body slid against mine as her muscles became rigid. "I slept great. You?"
"Fantastic. Better than I have in a quite awhile, actually." As I said the words, I realized they were true. Her presence had lent a calmness to my sleep that had been lacking for a long time. She moved her hand across my chest. We were either going to have to get up or have sex. My body was awake and humming. "If we lay here much longer, I may have to ravage you." I chuckled. "How does some breakfast sound to you?"
"Ooh, that sounds good. I'm starving. Although the alternative sounds good too." She gave a low and seductive moan. Her hand once again found its way to my breast, and her fingers began massaging my painfully erect nipple.
I placed my hand on hers, stilling it. "Oh no you don't. I think we should at least have another meal together before we get to that again." I laughed as I spoke. Gods, did I really say that? Did I really just say no to sex? Something really fucked up is happening to me.
"Oh alright," she gave me a mock grumble and moved her hand to my shoulder. "If you insist." I heard the smile in her words.
"Since I have absolutely no food in the house, how about we go to Magnolia Café?"
"Ooh, I haven't been there since college. Yeah, let's go there." She moved her head so she could see my face. Her eyes found mine, and her look became serious. She put her hand on my cheek. Its warmth spread across my skin. "Thank you," she whispered.
I took her hand and kissed her palm. "You're welcome. Thank you for staying with me." I smiled at her. "Now how about breakfast?"
We took turns showering and soon were ready to go. Bailey looked so cute in my clothes. The t-shirt hung down past her butt, and the shorts almost covered her knees. She looked like a little kid playing dress up. "Damn, you're tall," she said with a snort.
"I can't help it if you're so short." She reached out to slap my arm, but I danced away. She then lunged at me and began tickling me. I hollered and sank to the floor in a little ball. She had found my weakness. I was ticklish to the extreme. She fell on me, suddenly all fingers and hands. "Stop! Stop! I give! Uncle!"
She had me in a fetal position on the floor, her body lying across mine. "You gonna tell me I'm short again?"
"I can't help it if it's true," I blurted. She immediately began poking me in the side, running her fingers under my ribs. "Okay! Okay! You're not short. You're not short! I won't say it again!"
Her hands stilled, but she continued lying across me. "Promise?"
I rolled over onto my back keeping her on top of me. "I promise." I placed my hands on her face bringing her lips to meet mine in a long, slow kiss. She entwined her tongue around mine, drawing it out and into her mouth. She sucked it deeper into her, swirling hers around the tip. We both moaned, and her body wiggled against mine. I moved my hands down her back and squeezed her ass. She had such a lovely ass, and each cheek fit perfectly in my hands. I brought my knee up between her legs, and she began rubbing against it. Her hands moved from my shoulders to knead each breast.
I pulled back from her, leaning away so I could see her face. "Are you sure you want to do this? I don't want you to feel rushed into anything. I want it to be right." My voice was husky with desire. Part of my chorus was screaming at me for breaking contact; the other part was applauding my restraint. All I knew was that I didn't want to screw this up.
She leaned back down and drew me into another soul searching kiss. She pulled away and put her mouth against my ear, her breath hot on my skin. She whispered, "Yes, I do. I want to feel your skin against mine. I want your hands on every part of my body. I want you inside of me. I want to hear you scream my name. I want to taste you. I want you to make me come."
The chorus shut up, and I just went with the moment. "Then let's move to the bed. It's much more comfortable than these hardwood floors."
We stood without breaking contact. We stumbled to the bedroom, shedding clothes as we went. I almost fell trying to get out of my shorts, but her sure hands on my shoulders steadied me. By the time we made it to the bed, we were both gloriously naked.
We never did make it to Magnolia Café. Two hours later, we ordered pizza.
"So, how ya doing?" I asked. It was seven o'clock in the evening, and we were still in bed. The empty pizza boxes lay on the floor, and I could feel crumbs underneath me. Bailey was sprawled on her back, her legs thrown over mine and her arms above her head. We had spent the day alternating between making love, eating, and napping. It has been the perfect day.
I'm doing great. She chuckled.
I was just thinking of the inadequacy of the word great.' It doesn't even begin to describe how I feel right now. A better description would be stupendous, glorious, phenomenal. She rolled over and put her head on my shoulder.
I pulled her close. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I haven't felt this good in Well, hell, I can't even remember when. I smiled down at her and kissed her forehead. Can you stay tonight, too?
Oh, I am so tempted. I would love to spend another night in your arms. Sadly, I have these two monsters at home that will tear up my house if I don't get home and feed them. I gave her a quizzical look. My cats, Westley and Buttercup. They can be holy terrors when they don't get what they want. I swear, sometimes I feel like I have children instead of pets.
I completely understand. Sondra had a dog, Max, that got a little pissy when he didn't get his way too. I hadn't thought of Max in years. We had an instant dislike for one another, but we forged an uneasy peace over time. He died a few years after I moved in.
Bailey reached over and cupped my breast. And if I stay over another night, neither one of us will get any sleep. Her breath tickled my ear as she spoke.
You got that right, I whispered and leaned in for a kiss.
An hour later, I lay sprawled on the bed watching Bailey get dressed.
She looked at me and giggled. You look like the cat who ate the canary.
I wiggled my eyebrows at her. I don't think it was the canary I was eating, but I feel just as satisfied.
She smiled and shook her head at me. She ran her hands over her skirt, smoothing it out. Okay, I better go.
I stood up and threw on my robe. I held out my arms, and she came to fill them. We stood that way for a long time, gently swaying back and forth.
Thank you, I whispered in her ear. Thank you for making me feel human again.
I walked her to the door, and we shared a final kiss.
Call me tomorrow? she asked as she placed her palms on my cheeks.
Call you? Hell, I'll be at the hospital every chance I get. I'll be taking all my patients there.
She giggled. Don't tell the nurses that. They'll hate me!
We stood for a moment longer gazing into each others eyes, both reluctant to break contact.
Okay, I'll talk to you tomorrow. She didn't move.
Yeah, see you then. Still no movement.
Finally, we both laughed. She kissed me one last time, and then she was gone.
I stood in the doorway watching as she drove away. Once she turned the corner, I walked into the living room and plopped down on the couch. I was still stunned by the changes this week had brought to my life. I knew I had a goofy grin on my face, but I didn't care. What had I done to deserve such a woman in my life? What did I need to do to keep her?
The next three weeks were the best I'd had since before Sondra died. Bailey and I saw each other every day. If not on a date, then at the hospital. Since most of our calls were false alarms, Rufus and I rarely had a legitimate reason to go to the hospital. I became creative in finding reasons for us to be there. We checked up on past patients, restocked our truck from the supply closet, and even went to help other crews clean their trucks after a particularly messy call. Rufus complained constantly that I was cutting into his TV time because I kept him out of the station so much, but I knew he didn't mean it. He let slip once that he was happy I had found someone who obviously made me feel so good.
Bailey and I talked on the phone every night, gently probing further into each others' lives with every conversation. I found out the ex-girlfriend had left her for a guy. She even had the gall to send Bailey an invitation to the wedding. Bailey had been devastated. We talked about our hugely different families. I was fascinated by her big, loving brood. I had always wanted siblings and parents who cared. She admitted she had always wanted to be an only child, but she grew to appreciate her brothers as she got older. Bailey understood how hard it was for me to talk about myself. She never pushed or prodded me further than I was willing to go. She made it okay for me to open up to her a little bit at a time.
We also discovered a shared affinity for 80s music and really bad B' movies. We spent several evenings dancing in the living room to Madonna and Culture Club or entwined on my couch watching Buckaroo Banzai, The Perils of Gwendoline, and Tank Girl. We also watched The Princess Bride at least four times. We could both quote the entire movie.
My only fear during those weeks was that I would somehow mess things up. I hid my drug use from her just like I hid it from everyone. She had no idea that I flew on the nights she didn't stay over. She didn't know about the Clinique bag I kept in my car. She didn't seem to question my mood swings, but then why would she? People can't see what they don't expect, and Bailey was no exception. She had yet to see me when I wasn't on something. I lived in constant fear she would find out.
I was also afraid of losing myself as I had with Tricia. It felt so good to be with Bailey, to hold her and make love to her. It felt too good. I worried I would reach a point where I would do anything to keep her from leaving me. That's what had happened with Tricia. I had overlooked all her faults because I desperately didn't want to be alone. I did anything Tricia wanted as long as she agreed not to leave me. In the end, she left me anyway. I knew Bailey wasn't anything like Tricia and that comforted me. I was already too far gone to stop my feelings for her anyway.
Lying in bed one Wednesday night, I suggested she come to work with me the next day. It'll be great. I can show off my life saving skills to you. What do you think?
It sounds like fun. Are you sure it'll be alright?
Sure. Rufus won't mind. Of course, I hate to subject you to twelve hours of him, but hey, you'll have me to keep you distracted.
And you certainly are good at the distracting part. She kissed me, and it was another hour before we finally went to sleep.
The next morning, we entered the station at 6:30. I thought Jake was going to pass out when he saw me so early.
What the fuck, Jameson? Is it really you? He reached out as if to touch my forehead with his hand.
Fuck you, man. I swatted his hand away. I've been early before.
He screwed up his forehead in thought. Hmmm. No, actually, you haven't.
I slapped his arm and smiled at him. Well always a first time, right? I turned to Bailey. This asshole is Jack. Jack, this is Bailey. Be nice to her or I'll put cayenne pepper in your bunker pants.
I'm always nice.
He offered his hand to Bailey, and they shook. It's a real pleasure meeting you, Bailey. Don't tell me you're going out with this one.
Why yes I am. She let a drawl slip into her voice and draped her arm around my shoulder. As a matter of fact, it's been three weeks yesterday. She leaned over and kissed me. I was a bit embarrassed but went with it.
At that moment, Rufus entered the ambulance bay. Oh good god! Save that shit for your house. I did NOT need to see that. Get a room. He grabbed his gear bag and walked past us into the station.
Bailey and I looked at Jack who had a stunned expression on his face, and burst out laughing. That lovely man was Rufus, I said.
Jack and Lloyd gave us the report on their shift, and then headed out. I heard Jack telling Lloyd how much his wife would be surprised when he showed up a half hour earlier than usual.
In the station, we found Rufus sitting in the chair changing out of his Texas Tech t-shirt and into his white wife beater. I introduced Bailey to Rufus. I was shocked when he actually stood to greet her and shake her hand. I didn't know he had a gentlemanly bone in his body.
Just as we got all our gear stowed away and the ambulance checked out, our tones went off. Medic 15, Priority one diabetic. 1439 Parker Lane.
Bailey crawled in the back of the truck and put on her headphones while Rufus and I climbed up front. As we hit the street and Rufus turned on the lights and siren, I turned to look at Bailey through the small window in the cab wall. Hey Bailey. She turned the chair to look at me, and her eyebrows shot up in question. This is my favorite part. Lights and sirens. People getting the hell out of the way. It doesn't get any better than this. I gave her a big smile, and she laughed.
We arrived in front of the house to find a hysterical woman jumping up and down in the front yard. As I climbed out of the truck, she ran towards me. My momma! You gotta help my momma! I think she's dead!
I had to hold my hands out in front of me to keep the woman from running me over. Okay, okay. We're here now. We'll check on your momma. I grabbed one of our bags while Bailey grabbed the other. Where is she? Can you lead us to her?
The woman took off into the house, pulling us in her wake. In the living room, we found an elderly lady lying unconscious on the floor. I dropped down next to her and checked a pulse.
She's got a pulse and she's breathing. I turned to look up at the woman. What exactly happened?
We's just sittin' here watchin' our stories. I went in to fix us some lunch and heard a big thump. I come back in here to find her lying on the floor. Her body was all jerky then she just went still. I just knew she'd done gone and died. She ain't dead is she?
No, ma'am, she's not dead. She's diabetic , right?
The woman nodded her head. She had her insulin bout two hours ago. That's why I's fixin' lunch. She began crying loudly again. She ain't never done nothin' like this afore. Please help her. I just can't take losin' her.
I turned back to our patient to find that Rufus had already placed her on oxygen and was checking her blood sugar with the glucometer.
The machine beeped. Low, Rufus told me.
He and I began our well practiced dance. As grumpy and pissy as he was the rest of the time, during a call he was all business. There was no one I'd rather work with. Together we made a formidable team.
I inserted the IV while Rufus set up the rest of the equipment. I turned to find Bailey squatting off to the side, her eyes wide as she took in everything. Watch this. This is gonna be cool. These are some of my favorite calls. I had to whisper so the daughter didn't hear. Bailey looked at me questioningly. You'll see.
Rufus handed me the big syringe full of dextrose. I inserted the needle into the IV line and slowly pushed it in. The substance was viscous making the plunger difficult to depress, but finally all the medicine was rushing through her system. I looked at Bailey and mouthed, Watch.
Within seconds, the woman's eyelids fluttered open. She reached up to her face and pulled off the oxygen mask. She tried to sit up but fell back to the floor. I grabbed her hand and helped pull her into a seated position. Rufus brought a chair, and I leaned her against it.
The daughter flung herself down on the floor and grabbed the woman in a bear hug. Oh Momma! I's so afraid you's dead!
How are you feeling? I squatted in front of her. Can you tell me your name?
I'm fine child. Get off me. I can't breathe. Beulah's tone brooked no argument. The daughter rocked back on her heels but kept hold of her mother's hand.
My name's Beulah. I'm feelin' a little funny. What're you folks doin' here?
You were unconscious because your blood sugar was too low. It sounds like you might have had a seizure too. We started an IV and gave you some sugar.
She said she'd only started taking insulin within the last month. She was still trying to get the hang of eating after taking her shot. We made sure she was doing okay and then left her with her daughter who hugged us all and thanked us for saving her momma.
Back in the ambulance, we restocked out bag before leaving. Bailey was duly impressed. Wow! That was so awesome! I've seen them do that in the ER, but it's so much more dramatic on scene!
I chuckled at Bailey's amazement. Yeah, it's pretty cool. Those are my favorite calls. Instant gratification and we get to look like heroes. I grinned at Rufus, and he grinned back.
What a rush for y'all. Making such a dramatic difference so fast. She grinned at me.
Before I could respond, the pager at my belt went off. Medic 15, priority two psychiatric. 3514A Westland Drive.
Aw fuck! Another goddamn psych. Rufus threw the bag he'd been holding onto the floor and flung open the ambulance door. The whole truck shook as he stomped his way out.
I turned to Bailey. He's got a mild dislike for psych calls. He'll be alright in a bit. I winked at her and gave her a quick kiss. Mmm, you should ride out with me more often. I wiggled my eyebrows at her as I climbed out of the box and into the cab up front.
Rufus peeled away from the curb before I even had my seat belt fastened. Hey, dude. Slow down. Bailey's back there. I don't want her getting car sick.
He looked contrite. Oh yeah. I'm sorry. I forgot. He slowed down a bit.
Three minutes later, we pulled up in front of a dumpy little duplex. In the front of the house was a large carport split in two by a brown wooden wall. Wooden pillars in the opposite corners of each space labeled one side as A and the other as B. A little cement path led the way from the carport to the front doors on each side of the building. While the B side was immaculately clean with a freshly mown yard, the A side had crap filling the carport and grass that had probably never seen a lawnmower.
Of course, Rufus growled. Why do our calls always land us in the dumps? Why can't we run calls for the big fancy houses?
Aw Rufus. Think of these homes as having character. Those big fancy houses all look the same, and they're always so damn clean. It's not natural. He just scowled at me.
As we approached the house, I could hear a woman's voice yelling. I couldn't make out her words, but the tone sounded angry. I stopped and turned to Rufus. Should we call for the cops before we go in?
He listened for a minute. Naw. It sounds like a typical fight to me. Besides , the cops will take too long. I want to get this over with. He shrugged his shoulders and then continued on towards the house.
I stayed where I was for a moment. Bailey stood next to me. You alright? She looked at me with concern.
Yeah, I'm fine. Something about this just doesn't feel right, though. I can't put my finger on it. I really couldn't tell what was going on. The hair at the back of my neck was standing up, and my arms broke out in goose bumps. I had taken my normal dose of pills just before the last call, so I would normally be feeling mellow and calm. But instead, I was afraid and had no idea why.
I looked at the house and saw Rufus knocking on the door. My gut was telling me to call the police, but I didn't want to antagonize Rufus any further. He was already pissed off about being here. I decided it was probably nothing anyway. I joined him at the front step.
The door was flung open, and we were greeted by a short, fat woman screaming at the top of her lungs. IT'S ABOUT FUCKING TIME YOU PEOPLE GOT HERE! YOU GOTTA TAKE THIS MOTHER FUCKER OUT OF MY HOUSE BEFORE I KILL HIM! She paused to take a breath.
I jumped in while I had the chance. Ma'am, we need you to calm down and tell us what's going on. I held up my hands in a placating gesture.
Her voice lowered a few decibels, but she still yelled. This prick is not supposed to be here! I kicked his ass out two days ago! He's crazy as a fucking loon and won't take his meds! He just sits there mumbling all fucking day! She stepped further into the house revealing the interior to us. She pointed at a small man sitting on the couch wearing nothing but dingy gray briefs. He's supposed to be in the fucking nut house, but they let his sorry fucking ass out! I can't take that fucking mumbling anymore. You gotta take his ass out of here! She gestured impatiently for us to get in the house.
The woman was barely more than five feet tall and easily four hundred pounds. Her hair was cut short by what could only have been a dull butcher knife. She wore a large shapeless flower print muumuu with what I hoped were coffee stains down the front. Her legs ended in dirty pink slippers. There was a sharp, unpleasant body odor smell emanating from her.
The living room was lit only by a small lamp near the couch. It illuminated the man but left the rest of the room in shadow. As we entered the house, we were assaulted by the almost overwhelming smell of garbage.
I turned back towards the woman, who was still standing in the doorway. "Do you mind if I open the blinds? Let in a little light?"
"Y'all do whatever you need to. Just get that bastard out of my house."
I stepped back towards the door and pulled open the blinds that had blocked the window. The incoming light brightened the room enough for me to see the piles of garbage stacked in the little dining room behind the couch. The walls were stained with dark splashes of something, and I saw a bug crawling along the baseboard. The only pieces of furniture were a sagging couch, a dining room chair, and a small battered table holding the lamp. The fabric of the couch might once have been a lovely yellow, but now it resembled baby shit. The seat of the dining room chair had a big hole through the middle making it look like a toilet seat. The lamp shade had a hole burned through one side of it.
I took several deep breaths to accustom myself to the smell and then turned to the man. "Sir, what's your name?"
He turned his head and looked at me with faded, rheumy eyes. His gray hair was cut close to his head, and his face was covered in stubble. His forehead and cheeks were heavily creased. Broken blood vessels spider webbed under his skin and gave his nose and cheeks a slightly red tint. He reeked of cigarette smoke and bad wine. His small chest was barrel - shaped, and his skin was as gray as his hair. When he opened his mouth to speak, I noticed he only had two teeth.
"My name's Charles." His voice was gravelly and deep. He coughed wetly and spit a large yellow blob of mucus into a handkerchief he held in his hand. By the looks of the hanky, he'd been coughing up stuff for a while.
"Well, Charles, I'm Jordan. What's going on today?" I kept my tone light and non-threatening. I wasn't able to read how he was going to react just yet.
"This is my house. That fat cow over there can't keep me out. It's my name on the lease. Now I'd appreciate it if y'all would just go on and leave me alone." His tone was calm and flat; his words carried no inflection or emotion.
Bailey and Rufus had entered the house behind me and were standing near the dining room. Rufus was asking the woman questions and gathering some information for our report. However, when Charles spoke, she turned around and stomped over. "YOU LYING BASTARD! THIS IS MY FUCKING HOUSE AND YOU SURE AS SHIT KNOW THAT! I WANT YOU OUT! I WANT YOU OUT RIGHT FUCKING NOW!" As she spoke the last sentence, she leaned down and poked him in the chest, emphasizing each syllable.
"I would suggest you not do that." Again his voice was flat. His face showed no emotion.
FUCK YOU! She poked him again.
I turned to Rufus and mouthed, "I think we need to call the police."
Suddenly everything began moving in slow motion. I saw Rufus and Bailey's eyes grow wide. I heard a loud bang and felt hot droplets of something land on my arms and face. I turned my head back to Charles. There was a gun in his hand with the barrel still smoking. The woman, whose name I still didn't know, was standing in front of him, but half of her head was gone. I stared stupidly at the giant hole in the side of her head. She fell backwards in slow motion like a tree that had just been cut. Her face was still intact, and I saw her startled expression. Her eyes were wide with fear, and her mouth was open in a silent scream. Blood trickled out of her nose and down her forehead. Her left ear was gone, replaced by raw, hairy hamburger. She landed on the floor with a resounding thud, her legs flying up in the air before settling to the carpet. Her limbs twitched a few times and then she lay still. Her eyes were still wide and staring only now the dilated pupil made them seem almost black.
As suddenly as it had slowed, time returned to normal.
"HOLY FUCK!!!" Rufus' eyes were plastered to the dead woman. He had shoved Bailey behind him and was covering her with his body.
Bailey had screamed and was now huddled behind Rufus. Her eyes were wide with terror.
I looked down at myself to see my white uniform shirt covered in blood and brain matter. I also felt blood dripping off my chin. I reached up to wipe it off and found a piece of scalp clinging to my cheek.
Rufus looked up and our eyes met. I could see him realize with me that we should have called for help from the start. He reached for his radio mic clipped to his lapel to call dispatch. He started to push the talk button, and then another shot rang out. The mic fell from his hand, and I watched in horror as a red hole appeared in the front of his shirt near his belly button. He let out a surprised "Oof" and then fell backwards. Bailey was still behind him, and he landed on top of her. Her screams were muffled by his body.
Charles swung the gun towards me but didn't shoot. "I can't have y'all calling for anyone just yet. I need some time to think." His voice was emotionless and dead. His eyes held not a shred of remorse or even humanity.
I looked over to see Rufus lying motionless on the carpet, Bailey trying frantically to get out from underneath him. I couldn't tell if he was still breathing. Holy fucking hell! What am I supposed to do now?
To be continued ...