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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Southward - 8. VIII.

Valentín was asleep.

In the dead of the night I could hear the slowed rhythm of his breathing, warm against my chest. If I focused hard, I could even feel his heartbeat, warm in its own way too, and almost perfectly synchronized with mine. My left arm had long gone numb under his weight, but I couldn’t find it in me to care.

He hadn’t spoken a word since his arrival, which, in itself, said more than a thousand words could, as did the look on his face and way his shoulders hunched inwards, as if his whole body was trying with all its might to become smaller. Hushed, wary, they all spoke of dejection and hurt.

I didn’t try to pry the words out of him either. By now I knew him well enough to know talking would be of no use in this state. So we simply stripped to our underwear and made a nest out of my bedsheets, and I prayed the comfort of my bed and the dark of my room and the warmth of my embrace would be good enough to make him feel at home when it was clear he felt like he had none.

Valentín was asleep, but I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes.

“Corrientes?”

For the upteenth time, Valentín threw the tennis ball at the wall from his spot on the couch, only this time it bounced back in the wrong angle and promptly fell on the floor. He did not pick it up.

“That’s where Sergio’s family is from,” explained Marian, in lieu of Valentín. The two exchanged a prolonged look, after which she stood up and went back to the kitchen.

A rock tune played on the radio. It was not Redondos.

I ran my hand through Valentín’s hair. He didn’t lean into it, but he didn’t shy away either, which served as a good enough signal for me to keep going.

“Don’t you want to go back to my place?” I asked, my voice inadvertently coming out as a whisper. I was yet to get accustomed to being in Valentín’s place, and the circumstances were not making it easier for either of us to be there.

He ignored my question.

“He left a fucking letter, Lauti.”

I sighed, allowing my hand to wander down and cup his face. A couple of wiry hairs were timidly growing from his chin. “I know.”

Work, he said. Does he think I’m that stupid? He’s a fucking plumber.”

I did not have an answer for that.

He looked around, as if trying to find something else to throw at the wall, or simply to keep his hands busy with. He settled for my hand.

I knew it was a good thing that he was talking – a marked improvement from the catatonic silence from before. On the flip side, I now had absolutely no idea how to comfort him. I could only sit, and listen, and nod, and hold his hand, and keep my own growing sense of dread in check, and God, was it hard.

I could only wonder how much he was holding back himself.

Marian came back with two cans of beer. She gave one to Valentín, and offered the other one to me. It didn’t take much consideration on my part to realize the situation probably warranted a drink.

A third beer manifested in Marian’s hand; this one was for her. She said: “Regardless, he’ll be back in a few days.”

I felt the moment Valentín’s whole body tensed. He spat through gritted teeth: “He shouldn’t have left in the first place.”

Marian took a long sip from her can. She did not have an answer for that.

“Is Chubut really that cold in October?” Romina asked absently as she eyed the price tag on a wine-red winter coat that was clearly outside her price range.

“Not really,” I said. “You should be fine with what you’re wearing, actually. It doesn’t go below 10°C.”

Nahuel shot me a look that was a mix of incredulity and annoyance. “How do you even know that?”

I tried to replicate the expression back at him. “Dude, that’s in our geography syllabus. The test is next week.”

He waved his free hand dismissively, the one that wasn’t carrying an impossible amount of shopping bags.

We’d been wandering around the shopping mall for two hours now, and by now I was pretty sure Romina was merely abusing our generosity. Or my generosity, rather – my aunt had forced Nahuel to tag along and he’d been unable to come up with a way out fast enough.

I asked Romina: “How did you even convince my aunt and uncle to let you go to Trelew?”

She smiled proudly, but Nahuel answered my question before she could.

“By threatening to give halmeoni a heart attack, like the terrorist she is.”

Romina rolled her eyes. “I just told them that they could either let me go, or I’d wear my handkerchief to church every Sunday.”

I had to admit I was impressed. To be fair, I couldn’t recall seeing Romina without her worn-out green handkerchief, the now widely recognized symbol of pro-choice activists in Argentina. The idea of my cousin making a scene at church, in front of our elderly grandparents and the entire congregation, was nevertheless still pretty funny.

I eventually managed to convince her to at least let us stop by Starbucks so we could sit down for a while, much to Nahuel’s relief.

He waited until his sister had gone to the restroom to ask the question I knew he’d been wanting to ask all day.

“How is he?”

I looked down.

“He’s holding up.”

For the past two schooldays, Valentín’s usual spot toward the front of the classroom, behind Tomás’s and next to mine, had been empty. Under normal circumstances it would’ve taken a considerable effort on my part not to remind him of the negative impact his absence would have on his already less-than-stellar attendance record. But these were not normal circumstances.

Even now, aware as I was that he was keeping himself busy at the workshop with Marian, and having reminded him ad nauseam that he could text or call me at any time if so he desired, I felt like a good 60% of my brain power was focused entirely on worrying over him, while another 20% dealt with residual guilt from not being there with him at all times.

Nahuel made an effortless, reassuring nod. “Hey, he’ll be okay. His dad’s just a bit of a neanderthal, no big deal! Plus –” he gestured his frappuccino-drenched straw towards me: “He’s got you.”

I thanked him with a subtle smile.

“Yeah. He does.”

It was a dream, but it was also a memory. Or at least a faithful enough reproduction of one.

Lo… Law–?” the sounds were too foreign on the boy’s mouth, their strangeness immeasurable. It made me feel foreign and strange, too. “How do you spell that again?

I swung the strap of my messenger bag from one shoulder to another.

L-A-U-T-A-R-O.

Noah let out a confident, boisterous guffaw. I didn't recall that being so funny. Maybe that was the dream part interceding.

“That’s not a real name!”

I frowned. Were his words upsetting me or was it the wind? Chilly autumnal wind, carrying with it a string of red-brown leaves and the scent of suburban New Haven.

It’s my name. So it’s a real name.”

He didn’t seem to pay attention to what I said.

He carried a gym bag and a hockey stick with him. Were we coming from school or somewhere else? Or perhaps we were going somewhere… The details were fuzzy. Dreams were unreliable narrators, after all.

I’m gonna call you L.

But that’s not my name.

He smiled, but I couldn’t see his face. I just knew he’d smiled. And I knew exactly what it was supposed to look like.

It is, now.

It was raining when Valentín showed up at home that night.

He hadn’t texted to let me know he was coming, and given how late it was, he was lucky I’d even been awake to read the only thing he did send:

“at the door. let me in?”

He was soaking wet. His only cover: an old leather jacket two sizes too big and his sticker-bombed helmet. Soccer shorts and dirty sneakers completed the outfit, much to my dismay.

“Come inside, dummy, you’re gonna get a cold.”

A bucket of water fell off his shoes with each step he took.

I’d been smart enough to bring a bath towel with me. I helped him dry on the elevator.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled once we’d come home and he’d already shed the rain-soaked clothes for warm pajamas.

I pushed a still-humid strand of hair out of his face.

“What for?”

His response came out in a sorry croak, but I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or something else.

“I didn’t want to spend another night alone at home.”

I wrapped the towel around him and brought him into me, my arms folding safely over his shoulders. He was freezing.

He let his chin rest on the crease of my shoulder. We stood there, immobile, for what could’ve easily been either a minute or a ten or perhaps an hour. Then, his grip on my sides tightened, and he began to cry.

It was a muffled, contained sound, and it wasn’t until I felt the tears pooling on my shirt that I realized what was happening. I felt him tremble, and then his whole body was shaking to the tremor of falling tears, his breath uneven and goopy against me.

I pulled him in even closer, my hand on the back of his head, not unlike the way my mother used to comfort me when I was little. I couldn’t say if it worked the way I was hoping it would, but Valentín’s hold on me did not falter, and we remained like that, suspended in time, as he slowly got it all out of his system.

Valen, when was the last time you cried?

I couldn’t remember mine.

Valentín’s dad was gone for thirteen days.

We spent most of that week and a half before his return bouncing back and forth between Valentín’s place and mine, intercalated with school, the workshop and Marian’s place.

Wherever we went, we were always together.

The spirit of what we would spend time on varied vastly depending on where we were, too.

My place was for studying, for catching up on missed assignments, and for waking up in the early hours and drinking mate with my mom, with whom it was slowly getting more natural to be around together. My place was for light-hearted jokes and cheek kisses and cooking together, and I was happy to learn that although the Gómez household was accustomed to having takeout for dinner on a daily basis, Valentín had been sitting on a remarkable talent for the kitchen and a chipá guazú recipe that my mom forced him to pledge he’d repeat.

Valentín’s place was entirely different. His place was a liminal zone where the absence of the resident paterfamilias left a gap we could fill with anything our hearts desired. His place was a place for staying up late on school days, for listening to great music and binging terrible movies and getting high and doing all the former while in that state. It was there that I believe we lowered our guard for the first time, allowing ourselves to be ourselves as if there was no one who could stop us, because there wasn’t.

I made him watch the entire third season of ATLA (objectively, the best season), and he abashedly admitted to me that his favorite artist of all time was Gilda because old school cumbia was all he listened to when he was on his own. I told him I wanted to leave the cello for good because I no longer felt like it brought me any joy, and he told me the real reason he didn’t want to enroll in university was because he was afraid he wouldn’t be smart enough to succeed at it.

“You won’t know until you try,” I’d said.

“How come you’re so sure I won’t just suck at everything?”

“Because I’m a nerd, so I have a sixth sense that allows me to recognize my fellow kin.”

He’d shut me up with a kiss that tasted of ‘thank you’.

One night, on the ninth or ten day of Sergio Gómez’s impromptu sabbatical and having spent a good afternoon stuffing ourselves full of pizza and beer and a good dose of 2000s Nickelodeon children’s TV, I came up with an idea.

“Do you have any photo albums?”

The alcohol-induced buzz was yet to fully go away, and it only dawned on me after I’d asked just how unwise it was to bring out Valentín’s childhood memories when his father had just run away, but if he was bothered by it, he did not let it show.

It took him some time to locate the one old, moisture-stained photo album in the house. It was pretty clear it had not seen the light of day in years. We reclined on the bed, our legs intertwined, his back against the headboard and mine against his arm.

“Oh my God, you were so cute!”

Valentín swatted my arm. “Were?

I stuck my tongue out at him. “Yeah, what even happened to you?”

The pictures told the story of a moderately happy family that indulged in low-brow pleasures; going out for ice cream, playing in the park, celebrating birthdays and the first day of school, smiling after a game outside the Bombonera, or play-riding a motorcycle, a lovely prelude to 18-year-old- Valentín’s primary passion.

A family of three.

“That’s your mom?”

“Yeah.”

Fabiola, the tattooed cursive letters on Valentín’s chest spelled out. Her only son had inherited the black of her eyes, the bronze of her skin and the kindness of her smile. She looked young, far too young to be a mother, far too young to be dead.

“She was an immigrant too, you know?” Valentín said after a pensive pause. His eyes were still on the glossy photographs.

“Hmm?”

He pointed at her in one of the pictures. “She was Paraguayan. Her family didn’t really like my dad, so they moved away from Corrientes and came to the Capital to marry.”

In my mind the story played out like a movie: a young man and a young woman of vastly different backgrounds defying family mandates and running away to be together. The plot was strikingly familiar, as it reminded me of my own parents’ story – though the cast of characters could not have been more different.

I briefly debated with myself if I should ask what I was thinking. The residual ethanol still loitering around in my nervous system must’ve pushed me over the edge.

“How…?”

He’d known what I was about to say right away, and so he saved me from the trouble of having to put it into words.

“She had a… complicated mind.” A slight frown formed on his face, as if he was trying to find the correct verbiage. “My dad never knew how to help her. She took her own life when I was eleven.”

I swallowed hard.

“I’m sorry.”

He pulled me closer. I felt his breath on my hair. Somehow, our hands had found the way to each other when we hadn’t been watching.

We fell into a comfortable silence, and for a moment I caught myself wanting to drift into sleep.

Valentín’s voice tugged me back.

“You’re the first person I’ve told.”

I turned up to him. “The guys don’t know?”

He shook his head once, just a bit.

I held his gaze for a minute, feeling like I’d just been exposed to a particularly strong camera flash or a stunningly loud noise. There was a certain type of implicit massiveness to what he’d just said. I’d just been trusted with something so big, so rare, so precious. It was hard to fully conceptualize just how much of him he’d just bared to me.

“Thank you…” I began to say, still unsure of how I wanted to finish the sentence. In the end, I couldn’t come up with something good enough. “Thank you for telling me.”

Valentín flashed a weak smile, sincere but tired, as if the preceding conversation had taken a toll on him.

“Thank you,” he said, “for being here.”

The long weekend that resulted from Cultural Diversity Day (the not-as-colonialist version of Columbus Day celebrated here) produced a short yet remarkable hibernation period during which Valentín and I did not leave his apartment for nearly three days. Come Monday I was emotionally recharged, spiritually fulfilled and absolutely ready to go outside.

Cold wind hit my face with some more force than I’d been anticipating, and for a moment, cool sunlight blinded me as we stepped outside of the building. I was, of course, greeted by the familiar view of tall grey apartment complexes and skies a slightly less dark shade of grey, but somehow even bleaker still.

By all accounts, the mundanity of Valentín’s appearance should have blended in well, with his uniform of a white t-shirt (stained with motor oil), soccer shorts (blue and gold, the Boca Juniors hues) and worn sneakers (no socks). And yet now, more than ever, the sight of messy hair and sharp brows and dark eyes made me feel like I was standing in front of a Rembrandt in a fine arts museum rather than an eighteen-year-old boy in an unremarkable neighborhood in the south side of Buenos Aires.

Such, I’d come to learn, were the dizzying symptoms of being in love.

“That’s the park from the photos.”

I recognized the unkempt greenery and lackluster playground infrastructure, which remained unchanged in the decade since those photographs in the album were taken and now.

“I never come here anymore.” He stared blankly at the empty park, still save for the scarce trees shaking with the wind in the distance.

Many reasons for that came to mind. I dared not mention any of them.

Instead, I said: “You’re gonna get mud all over your feet.”

He shoved me playfully, hard enough to make me lose my balance but not enough to actually make me fall. Against my better judgment, I tried to return the gesture, but basic physics and our body builds made me stumble back while he stood firmly planted. I heard him laugh – a generous, beautiful sound – and everything was right again.

We walked in silence, allowing the distance to slowly replace the noise of cars speeding by the avenue with the constant murmur of the wind. After a while, we sat on a bench, the planks of which were so wet and rotten it was inexplicable how they didn’t break the second we plopped down on them.

Our knees touched, and for a moment, I was transported to that time after school when we’d just started talking about the things we felt for each other. Rationally, I was aware that it’d been just a few weeks ago, but in my heart I still couldn’t accept this thing I had going on with Valentín was that incipient.

His gaze was posed on something distant before us.

He said: “I’m terrified of what’s gonna happen when my dad comes back.”

I gulped. I was terrified, too.

Since I had nothing to say, I simply took his hand.

“Now is when you change the subject so we have something to talk about,” he said, a dashing smile now easily drawing on his face.

I thought about it for a second. “Are you excited for Boca playing Palmeiras next week?”

For an instant, he looked at me as if I’d just grown a third arm. Then, he let out the greatest laugh I’d ever heard from him. It went on for a good minute, and eventually I was laughing too, but more so because I was happy than because I found what I’d said funny.

“Dude, what the fuck?” he said once he was able to speak in full, coherent sentences. “That was so random coming from you.”

I shrugged, trying not to let it show just how proud I was to have gotten that reaction out of him. “Maybe I’ve been reading some Olé magazine in my spare time.”

He stared, incredulous and bemused. “What, you’re into soccer now?”

No,” I said. “I just love you.”

My eyes widened at the realization of the words that had just escaped my mouth. Of the language they’d been spoken in.

“What did you just say?”

Valentín’s smile had widened. There was a devilish spark in his eyes.

“No, wait! I –”

“You love me?”

I knew I’d just dug this hole for myself, I just couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it coming.

“I take it back!”

“You take it back?!”

He was laughing again now. I just knew my cheeks were so, so red now. They also hurt in the best way.

“I don’t! I mean –”

“You love me!”

I was not going to protest it. It was true. It was clear as water. I did, I did love him. I loved Valentín Gómez, and I loved him in Spanish.

He opened his mouth to say something else, and just as the distance between us shortened I felt the electrifying certainty that whatever he said now, there was no coming back from this.

Then his phone went off.

His smile was gone; whatever fire had lit in his eyes extinguished, and I knew right away our greatest fears were now manifesting into reality.

Birds shot down from the sky mid-flight.

Valentín’s voice came with an edge.

“Dad’s back.”

Sergio Gómez was a scary man.

Not in the way a shadowy figure standing on the edge of a dark alleyway at night was scary. He was scary in the way that a stern father was scary: in the way that his steely eyes held in them the potential to beam with an unmatched kindness – a trait he’d passed down to his only son – just as much as they could burn a hole right through you with a nasty stare.

And right now, Sergio Gómez was staring at me as if he felt my face was missing a few holes.

“I was hoping we’d be able to talk, Valentín,” he said, his voice deep and raspy in a way I hadn’t heard it be before. He added: “...alone.”

My hand hovered over Valentín’s shoulder. I had to push myself to speak out loud.

“Maybe I should go…”

Valentín shook his head, his frown-crowned gaze still lost somewhere between his father and the kitchen window. Then, it found me.

“Please, stay.”

So I stayed.

We fell into a loaded silence, the pressure of the room now rising beyond what was acceptable even on a humid day like this. Neither Valentín nor I had moved from our spot by the door.

Sergio cleared his throat.

“Your grandmother wasn’t happy I showed up without you.”

It was a strange thing to say given the circumstances, and even stranger in the tone with which it was said. Words uttered just for the sake of it, to fill the blank space where a terrible silence had been.

Valentín said nothing.

“She hasn’t been well,” continued Sergio. “That liver thing… Well, you know how it is. She asked me to take you to see her sometime soon. Doesn’t know if she’s gonna live much longer, I reckon.”

Standing here, in this living room, listening to this conversation – it felt all kinds of wrong. I was trespassing, peeking through a lockhole into a scene far too personal for an outsider like me to watch.

But Valentín wanted me here, so my feet remained in place and my eyes remained on him.

All of the room’s occupants braced ourselves as the silence threatened to creep into hegemony once again. This time, it was Valentín who warded it off.

“Dad…” he still wouldn’t meet his father’s eyes. “You were gone for two weeks.”

The pain in his voice crashed down on me like a tidal wave, and its retreat left nothing but an immense guilt. I’d enjoyed those few days of accidental cohabitation so much I’d forgotten Valentín needed me for more than just binge-watching TV shows and eating junk food.

What could I have even done?

Anything. More.

Instead of addressing Valentín’s words, Sergio took a look around the living room, briefly peeking into the kitchenette.

“I can’t recall the last time this place’s been this clean,” he said. “I take it, that was your doing.”

I realized he was addressing me.

I cleared my throat. “Valen did most of it.”

It was the truth.

Sergio raised an eyebrow at his son, and then, he smirked. It was a sideway smirk, just a slight elevation in one of the corners of his lips, a gesture I’d seen on Valentín plenty of times. But there was an edge to the way it looked on the father, an undertone: grimly cynical, almost mocking.

It filled me with something I hadn’t felt in a long time, a ravenous fire burning at the pit of my stomach: anger.

This man had been gone for thirteen days. Valentín had opened his heart and told him the one thing he’d never dared tell before, and he had run away.

And now he was back, acting all smug and nonchalant, and couldn’t he see how Valentín hurt? Couldn’t he see just how much pain he’d inflicted upon his son, the only family he had left?

I felt the tips of my fingernails digging into my palms and my heart trying to jump out of my mouth, hopefully to explode like a grenade.

Valentín was still facing the ground. He would not talk back to his dad.

But I would.

“Actually,” I said, the echo of my voice resounding with the strange vibrato a gall most unlike me. “Valen has done a lot these past two weeks.”

The smug look on Sergio’s face was gone. I took his silence as my cue to go on, though by now I was pretty sure I was shaking with something more than just anger.

“His grades are up across all subjects. He’s probably not even gonna have to sit for make-ups in December. And he’s doubled his hours at the workshop.”

I could see Valentín now looking my way from the corner of my eye, but my attention was posed entirely on Sergio.

He shook his head, unimpressed. ‘And?’ was the unspoken response.

“And,” I continued, “he’s been looking into preparing for admissions at UTN. With his background and expertise, Valen could do well pursuing a mechanical engineering degree.”

Sergio nodded. He said: “That’s good.”

Good.

Tears threatened to pour from the corners of my eyes. I felt Valentín’s hand on my shoulder, a signal for me to let it go. It was done. There was nothing more to say; he knew it, but I didn’t. Or I didn’t care. Or something in me didn’t care.

And –” Valentín’s grip tightened. My eyes were still on Sergio. “And you should be proud to have a son like Valen. He’s kind, and smart, and he worries a lot, and –”

The hand on my shoulder turned into an arm across my chest, either shielding me from Sergio’s incoming response or stopping me from further embarrassing myself, or, perhaps, a bit of both.

“We’ll talk later, dad” I heard Valentín say.

He took me to his room. As soon as he closed the door behind us, I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding. Tears were now running freely down my cheeks.

“Lauti.”

He was holding me by my arms. I couldn’t bring myself to meet his gaze.

“Lauti, look at me.”

Brown, black, black-brown eyes. Was he mad at me? I wouldn’t have held it against him.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice pathetic and low. Where had that bold baritone Lautaro gone? To somewhere in Corrientes, or New Haven, Connecticut.

I felt the warmth of his lips on my forehead, a chaste kiss. One of his hands now cupped the back of my neck.

“Lauti, I love you too.”

Okay so, remember how I said this was gonna be the last chapter? Well, surprise! This is actually the penultimate chapter. For real this time! I realized if I didn't split this chapter into two, it was just going to be way too long. I mean, that wouldn't have been the end of the world, either, but consistency and symmetry are important to me, you know? Anyway, enjoy the early release!
PS. At this point, it goes without saying that I love reading your comments and feedback, so don't hold back on those 😊
PPS. There's going to be an epilogue too. I don't even want to start thinking about what length that will be. Agh!
Copyright © 2020 gor mu; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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Well you got me there. I came into this fully prepared for it to be the last chapter and almost threw a fit when I saw how it ended! So glad we're getting another one (plus an epilogue)!

Valentín is so lucky to have Lautaro by his side. The love confession in the end was super sweet and spontaneous. Even if Lautaro didn't mean to say it, it was what Valen needed to hear - and it's obvious the feeling is mutual.

Edited by ObicanDecko
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Good call that was the perfect place to stop.Can't wait to see what follows now.A couple of weeks ago I read a story chapter that was three times as long as this one so don't sweat it.

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8 hours ago, ObicanDecko said:

Well you got me there. I came into this fully prepared for it to be the last chapter and almost threw a fit when I saw how it ended! So glad we're getting another one (plus an epilogue)!

Valentín is so lucky to have Lautaro by his side. The love confession in the end was super sweet and spontaneous. Even if Lautaro didn't mean to say it, it was what Valen needed to hear - and it's obvious the feeling is mutual.

Sorry if I had you worried for a sec! And I'm glad to hear it came across as spontaneous, that's 100% what I was going for 😄

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7 hours ago, weinerdog said:

Good call that was the perfect place to stop.Can't wait to see what follows now.A couple of weeks ago I read a story chapter that was three times as long as this one so don't sweat it.

Thank you! 😊

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12 hours ago, drsawzall said:

Looking forward to the rest, Sergio...infirma la cabeza!! Don't mind my mangled spainglesh!@!!

Your Spanglish is not too shabby! Next chapter is coming soon 😊

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