A falling star from beyond the veil, the second sign, The Warden of the Sealed Path. He shall refuse the hand, and return to us. Awaken, our Warden, and be again with all you left behind. Bless the world with your touch, and lead us forever away from the coming darkness and into the rift.
– The Lacuna Augury
The Prophet pulled his phone from his pocket and read the message on the screen.
“Did you feel that?”
He typed back a reply. “I did. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, the second sign. I’m sure of it.”
“Oh? Do you think so?”
“I know you’ve never been one to believe, but when the prophecy unfolds in earnest, even the most ardent of our opposition will come to know the truth. ”
“I suppose anything is possible.”
“Can you tell me that feeling what you did is not significant?”
“It does makes me nervous. I’ve never felt anything quite like it before.”
“You could join me. Together we could uncover the mysteries to come. You wouldn’t need to worry about money ever again.”
“I’ve got too much going on right now. Maybe another time.”
“You always say that.”
No replies followed. The prophet had spooked his friend again. He was such a timid creature, yet invaluable. Now, as the next page of the prophecy was being turned, The Prophet lamented that in all this time they had never come closer than these faceless messages. But time was short, and desires had to be cast aside. The prophecy waited for only one man now, The Warden of the Sealed Path.
David could hear the two women waiting in line over the shrill, frothy gurgling of steaming milk as he prepared another latte.
“Brad’s really been pushing for us to get pregnant. He swears he’s ready now, but I’m not so sure. He’s excited, but that’s not the same as being ready. But even if he is, I don’t think I’m ready just yet. How are you even supposed to know for sure whether or not you’re actually truly ready anyway? What if when I think I’m ready I’m not, or what if I end up being one of those career mothers who never spends any time with her kids? That can screw up a kid for life.”
“You’re just being neurotic. You’d be great with kids. Besides, everyone’s a little messed up, so there’s some wiggle room in there too.”
They both laughed.
“I’m just not ready. Things at work are better now than they’ve ever been. I’m in line for a real promotion next year — new office with a view and everything else — and there is simply no way that a kid wouldn’t pose a threat to that. It’s literally a family or a career, one or the other.”
“You don’t work for some podunk strip-mall store, it’s a huge corporation. Don’t they have maternity leave?”
“They do, and I’ve even looked into it, but you don’t understand the precarious situation I’m in there. There’s whole contingent of the old guard who hold all the upper positions, and even the progressive ones are likely to unconsciously dismiss you for not being a guy. I’ve worked hard to present an image to everyone there that’s entirely defined by my skills and achievements, and showing up pregnant will be like holding up a road flare and shouting, ‘I’m a woman, I’m strange and different from you!’ That’s just not something I can afford to do right now. And let’s not forget that in my line of work six weeks is an eternity.”
“You shouldn’t have kids,” said David, having handed off a coffee to a customer and turned to the pair with a flat expression.
“I’m sorry?” said the women.
“You shouldn’t have kids. It’s really obvious you don’t want them right now. You’ve got a good job and you’re going places. It would be stupid to give that up.”
The woman was about to reply when her friend cut in. “I’m sorry, who are you and why are you eavesdropping? None of this has anything to do with you. It’s none of your business. And what are you, like, twenty? You don’t have the first clue about what you’re talking about.”
“I’m nineteen,” said David. “And these things are black and white when you’re not all mixed up in them emotionally. No kids. Simple.”
“I think that’ll be something I decide for myself, thank you,” said the woman.
“Damn right,” her friend added, “now why don’t you run up your little ivory tower of coffee grinds and get us our lattes before you find any more pearls of wisdom in that tragic hipster getup of yours.”
David scowled at the women, but returned to his task. The two women prattled on, but David ignored them. If they were too proud to take good advice, that wasn’t his problem. Wordlessly, he finished the drinks and put them on the counter, pointing to the two woman who quickly collected their drinks with scowls of their own and left.
Once they left, David’s boss, Stephan, walked up and pulled him aside.
“Can you believe those two,” began David before Stephan could speak, “treating well-reasoned advice like it was a personal insult or something?”
“Yes,” said Stephan slowly, “it was rather unbelievable the way you used my store counter as your personal pulpit again after I’ve asked you several times not to.”
“I wasn’t, honestly! It was just a quick, helpful insight, and they snapped my head off for it. But don’t worry, I got them.”
“You got them?”
“Yeah, I gave them both decaf.” David said with a wide smile. “Score one for the baristas, am I right?”
Stephan sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Stop by my office before you leave tonight, alright?”
“Okay, but can we keep it short? I’m meeting up with some friends tonight and I don’t want to keep them waiting.”
Stephan just stared at him for a moment, then turned without another word and headed into his small office in the back of the coffee shop.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully for David. When his shift ended at nine he signed out of the system and handed over the counter to the red-eye shift before making his way into the back where Stephan’s office was. When David opened the office door, Stephan met him with a scowl, but David dismissed it since Stephan was always scowling.
“Take a seat, David.”
David flopped into one of the two chairs in front of the desk. “What’s up?”
“David, you aren’t working out here.”
“What?” David sat upright in his seat, cold adrenaline static crawling over him. Not again.
“You’re rude and argumentative with customers, and it’s costing us business.”
“But they’re always the ones that are rude with me!”
Stephan held up a hand. “Don’t interrupt. You have a bad attitude about everything; you’re insubordinate; and you don’t get along with any of the other baristas.”
“I thought I was getting along fine with everyone, but if it’s really a problem, I can fix it, I promise.”
“It’s too late for that, David. We’re letting you go. We’ll mail you your last check.”
David shot to his feet and held up both hands. “Just… just wait a second. I try really hard, and I’m not trying to piss anyone off. Can’t you give me another chance? Please?”
“You’ve already been replaced. It’s done. Just go home.”
David threw up his arms. “Fine! But this place won’t be the same without me.”
“I certainly hope not.”
David crossed his arm, jaw tight and quivering, and stared at Stephan.
“Fuck you!” He gave Stephan the finger and stormed out of the office. He marched straight to the front of the store and grabbed his messenger bag from behind the counter. He couldn’t look at anyone. A moment later he was out the door.
David unchained his bike and pedaled home as fast as he could, wiping the tears out of his eyes as soon as they came. Arriving home a half hour later, he let his bike fall heavily amongst rusting tools and car parts in uncut grass as he trudged inside. At least he wouldn’t have to stay long. He’d just meet up early with his friends and spend the night.
The drunk shouts of his parents’ arguing assailed him as soon as he opened the door. His parents turned their inebriated scowls on him from the poorly lit living-room.
“You left your fucking bike on the lawn again, didn’t you?” spat his mother with a sneer.
“I’ll put it away later,” replied David, not meeting either of his parents’ gaze. “It’s not like it’s making the yard more of a shit-hole than it already is.”
“Don’t you talk to your mother like that. Show some fucking respect,” slurred his father.
“I had a bad day, alright‽”
“You had a bad day?” said his mother, snuffing out her cigarette in an overflowing ashtray while taking a swig of bottom-shelf scotch. “What, did you have to clean up some liberal yuppie’s fancy spilled coffee? You’ve never had a hard day in your life. Try twenty years in a slaughter house, then talk to me.”
Why was it always like this? Why did she always have to assume the worst of him? It wasn’t even his fault!
“It wasn’t something stupid like that. I got fired, alright? My boss hated me for no—”
“Oh just great, just great! Jesus, give me strength!” interrupted his mother. She eyed David dangerously as she lit another cigarette, its red glow illuminating her wrinkled, leathery skin. She took a long pull on it before pointing the smoking tip at him. “If you think you’re going to live off us like some dead beat, you better think again.”
This wasn’t fair.
“I’m not a deadbeat! I don’t… I just…I just want to go hang out with my friends, okay? I just want to go.”
David’s dad tossed an empty beer can into a scattered pile with many others like it. He pulled a fresh one from a small plastic cooler beside his tattered recliner, cracked it open, and drank something near half the can before setting it down.
“Is one of them your girlfriend?” asked his dad, eyes straining to focus on him.
David scowled back at the cluttered floor at his feet. “No. They’re just friends.”
What was so important about a girlfriend, anyway?
“If you can’t pay rent, you’re out,” said his mother. “And don’t think you can steal food from the fridge either. That’s how the real world works, kiddo.”
“What happened to your last girlfriend?” asked his father.
“He’s never had a girlfriend,” jeered his mother. “You’d know that if you were ever around.”
“I’m around plenty enough as is. Too much, if you ask me.” He turned back to David. “Not a fruitloop are you?”
“No,” said David through clenched teeth, shaking slightly as he started to edge away.
“Well, with all those weird drawings you do and no girlfriend, there’s got to be something wrong with you.”
David wished the house would just burn down around him. He imagined hot flames warming him while it burned away everything he hated, even himself. At least then it wouldn’t hurt like this.
“If he’s out chasing after little boys it’d be because there’s never been a real man in this house,” said his mother. “A real man wouldn’t be drunk every night, unable to support his family.”
“So then it’s the woman’s job to sit on her fat ass all day and pound scotch, or is it just the ugly ones no one wants?”
David did his best to block out the pointless insults his parents were now hurling at each other loud enough for the neighbors to hear as he slipped away to his room. He leaned against the inside of his bedroom door as soon as he closed it, unable to stop the tears any longer. How was he going to move out now? He had been saving every penny to get a place with some friends, but now there was no telling when he’d be able to move out. Maybe Brad and Andy would be willing to let him pay a little bit less, just until he could get another job. The thought of asking them scared him, but what else could he do? Maybe he could ask them sometime tonight.
Wiping his eyes on his sleeve, he dropped into his creaking computer chair, he signed online and a message popped up from Brad. It said he was sorry, but him, Andy, and their girlfriends had all gotten invited to a huge party hosted by some guy from high school who didn’t want him there. He said he was sorry but knew David would understand, and that they’d catch up with him some other time.
Why wouldn’t the flames come?
Closing his laptop, he got up and pulled an old backpack from out of the closet and began stuffing it with clothes and what very few things actually meant something to him. He shoved his laptop in with a few essentials from the bathroom before making his way back to the living-room where his parents were still arguing. He never looked up, trying leave before they noticed, but he didn’t even make it all the way to the door before his mother was yelling at him again.
“If you think you’re not grounded for talking back to me, you’re dead wrong.”
“I’m nineteen, mom, you can’t ground me anymore.”
“The hell I can’t! While you’re living under our roof you’ll sure as shit do what you’re told. But just keep talking back and just see what happens. Just see!”
David stood there, squeezing the straps of his backpack as hard as he could, but finally bolted out the door without looking back. He picked his bike up from off the lawn and pedaled out into the street. His mother’s drunken shouts followed him from the doorway as he sped off.
“If you don’t get back here right now we’re locking you out for the night!”
They had locked him out before, but they would probably be too drunk by the end of the night to even remember the fight. Either way, it didn’t matter. He wasn’t coming back, and he hoped he’d never see them again. He peddled down the street until the belligerent screeches of his mother died out.
It was hours before David finally ended up at a small diner on the edge of town. Darkened buildings lined the empty streets surrounding it, most of them abandoned. A sickly orange sodium glow from the buzzing street lights illuminated their boarded-up windows and crumbling, heavily tagged exteriors. A neon 24-hour sign flickered through the diner’s grimy front window as David chained his bike to a bent rack atop a sea of broken glass and cigarette butts before making his way inside. A small bell above the door rang as the smell of sizzling grease mixed with cigarette smoke greeted him. Not seeing anyone around to seat him, he helped himself to a dilapidated booth, tossing his backpack in first before sliding alongside it.
David let out a shuddering breath, trying to quell the growing panic in his chest. What was he going to do? Anything except going back to his parents’ place, but with no job, no friends, no home, and nowhere to go, he didn’t know what to do. His parents were probably throwing away his stuff right now. Let them, none of it mattered anyway. Actually, they’d probably wait until the morning and sell it for booze and cigarettes instead.
“Sorry about the wait,” said a waitress who he hadn’t seen come up. “The other waitress who was supposed to be here is sick, so I’m the only one here for another hour.”
David shrugged and waived it off. “It’s no problem. I don’t have anywhere to be. I didn’t even notice, really.”
“Thanks for being patient. I already had one woman yell at me today, which I can tell you is no fun.”
“I know exactly what that’s like, I work in a coffee shop. Well, I did work in a coffee shop, anyway. I got fired today.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” the waitress looked genuinely hurt.
“Thank you,” said David, mustering a weak smile.
The waitress’s distress transitioned into a warm smile. She was really cute.
“What can I get you to drink?”
David’s eyes dropped as he picked idly at an ancient imperfection in the tabletop. “Um, coffee?”
“Coming right up.”
David caught her parting smile and it made him smile too. With a sigh, he pulled out his phone and started sifting through the list of contacts, trying to figure out who he might be able to crash with for a few days. He texted a few of them, but none of them replied before the waitress returned with his coffee. He cringed after the first sip. The coffee was thin and burned, not that it mattered a whole lot, he hadn’t really wanted anything anyway.
David looked over when he heard the bell above the door ring. The two guys who walked in wore matching fraternity polos and were very obviously drunk. Both of them were so obnoxiously loud that David couldn’t help but suffer through the deluge of posturing idiocy that spilled out of them.
The waitress returned, giving him another apologetic look. “Give me just a moment and I’ll come back and take your order. I just need to get these two seated. I’m the only one here for another hour, I’m really sorry about this.”
“You said that already, but it’s no problem, really. I’ll be fine.”
“Sorry, and thanks again,” she smiled and touched his shoulder for a moment before stepping over to the pair, apologizing to them for being slow. He wasn’t trying to listen, but couldn’t help but overhear.
“How long do you think we’ve been waiting here?” asked one of the guys to the other.
“So long I’d begun to give up hope,” said the other.
Like a saint or a large animal caretaker, she took the poor attempts at wit in stride, mustering a chuckle.
“I guess I could forgive you for a kiss,” one of them said to the waitress.
David watched as the guy leaned toward her, lips puckered. She recoiled, her face contorted with disgust.
“Hey!” shouted David. “Leave her alone!”
The two guys turned red, watery eyes in his direction until they settled on him. Damn it, why did he have to go and open his mouth? And now they were coming over here. This night just kept getting better and better.
“What was that you said?” slurred one of them, the pair now standing next to his table.
David’s heart raced. He grimaced into his coffee, doing his best to avoid looking at either of them, hoping they would just go away if he didn’t reply. Resting both hand against the creaking table, one of them loomed over him, his rancid breath stinging David’s nose.
“I was pretty sure you had something you wanted to say to me, cupcake.”
David held his silence.
“Your mistake then.”
David’s coffee cup clattered against the table as hot coffee spilled toward him.
“What the hell‽” swore David, crowding against his bag in a failed attempt to evade the sudden flood. He swatted frantically at the small amount of coffee that stained his pants as the pair laughed at him.
“Do you guys want to take a seat, or do you want to leave right now?” said the waitress from the doorway. The one that knocked over his coffee held up his hands.
“Just an honest mistake. I’m a little clumsy at the moment.” The creep turned back to his friend. “Come on, let’s eat something.”
The waitress scowled at them as they walked to the booth she was pointing at. Once she had attended to them, she walked over to his table, pulled out a washcloth, and started cleaning up the spilled coffee.
“I’m really sorry about that, but I wish you hadn’t said anything. I’ve got four older brothers, I know how to handle guys like that.”
David didn’t look up. “Sorry.”
The waitress sighed. “I didn’t mean it like that. I appreciate what you did. It’s good to know someone’s got my back.”
“We serve beer. You want one, on me?”
“No thanks. I don’t drink.”
“Well, they’ve got some better stuff than what you were drinking in back that they keep just for the staff. I’ll brew you a fresh pot, no charge, alright?”
David looked up at her. “Thanks.”
She leaned in and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, smile for me. Life’s too short to dwell on scum like them, or some crappy job.”
David gave a light snort in reply, but the waitress didn’t move her hand from his shoulder. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook. Between her warm eyes and calming smile he couldn’t help but smile a little too.
“There ya go.” She patted his shoulder. “It’s all uphill from here.”
David doubted that, but at least it wasn’t likely to get much worse. He shot a quick scowl toward the two college guys, then pulled out his phone to check if anyone had replied to his messages. No one had. He ran a hand through his hair and slouched back in the seat. David looked up and instantly tensed, dropping his eyes again. The two college guys were making their way back over. The one who had spilled his coffee quickly resumed his looming position leaning against the table.
“Not so tough without your girlfriend, are ya, cupcake?”
David seethed silently.
“Better enjoy your dinner, because when you’re done, we’re going to have a few things to say to you in the parking-lot.”
David felt sick to his stomach. He hated them almost as much as he hated himself for being scared.
“That’s not a very friendly thing to do, threatening someone like that.”
All three of them turned to see an average sized man in his thirties sitting leisurely in the booth across from them. He wore a sharp, tailored suit and had an olive complexion. His bright blue eyes were striking, staring coldly at the pair of college students from beneath straight black hair, while still managing to retain an air of calm that bordered on boredom.
“I’ve got late classes tomorrow, so if you feel like sticking your nose in this some more, I’ve got plenty of time for more than one parking-lot conversation.”
The peculiar man gave a dry chuckle as he stood slowly, straitening his tie and jacket before facing the two college guys with an amused expression. “I don’t really see it coming to that, as you’ll both be leaving.” He gestured politely with one hand at the door. “Now.”
“You’ll be the one that’s leaving if you know what’s good for you.”
The man was easily a foot shorter than either of college guys, and if he was built under that suit it certainly didn’t show. Despite that, he sized up each of them in turn, never changing expression. Reaching into his suit jacket with single smooth motion, he pulled his hand back out and pointed it at the pair. They were shocked for a moment, but then doubled over with laughter. The man was wielding his hand in the shape of a gun. David was certain now he was a nutjob, but at least he was helping deflect some of the drunken malevolence.
David watched the man bend his arm at the elbow and feign cocking the gun, sound effects included, then pointed it back at the pair. David couldn’t figure out why they had suddenly gone dead silent. Their whole bodies tensed as they slowly stood up straight and raised their hands. The finger gun, still as menacing as an empty squirt gun, slowly moved from one of them to the other, and both followed it with their eyes.
“Hey, man, no need for that. We’re cool, we’ll go”
“Yeah, right now. Just let us go and you won’t see us again.”
Why were they scared?
With a flick of the finger gun toward the door, the pair made their way toward the exit with impatient but cautious steps, never taking their eyes off the man’s extended hand. When they reached the door they both made a break for it, and seconds later David could hear the sound of an engine firing up and the squeal of tires. The man blew on the tips of his fingers, replaced the finger gun in his suit coat, then fussed with his suit and hair, making sure they were perfect before walking over and sitting down opposite of David.
David stared at the man who eyed him cooly. Unsure of what else to do, he just started talking. “Um, thanks for…whatever it was you did there.”
“Just simple things to scare simple minds,” said the man, then held out his hand. “Forgive me, I’m being rude. I’m The Second Prophet of The Lacuna Augury, but most address me simply as The Prophet. And you are…?”
David eyed the man’s outstretched hand with apprehension for a long moment, then reluctantly shook it.
“David.” He was certainly well dressed for a lunatic. David hoped that meant he was less likely to eat his face.
“You think I’m crazy,” the man said bluntly, but his expression remained cool with that touch of amusement. “I get that a lot, but given that I’ve helped you out of an unpleasant situation, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a moment of your time.”
David rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, I guess that’s fair, but I’m meeting some friends of mine in a bit so I can’t stay long.”
The waitress, appearing out of nowhere for the second time, set down a plastic carafe of coffee in front of David. “Good news for both of us,” she said. “It looks like dumb and dumber found somewhere else to lech. Oh, I didn’t know you had a friend coming. See? Everything’s on the up and up.” She turned to The Prophet. “Would you like some coffee as well?”
“I would, thank you.” He pulled out a black leather wallet and withdrew a hundred dollar bill. He offered it to the waitress as he nodded toward David. “Bring him anything he wants; keep the rest for your kindness.”
“Oh, that’s…um, not really…” sputtered David.
The waitress stared at the large bill, then looked The Prophet over before smiling and pocketing the hundred. “That’s very generous; thank you.” She turned back to David. “I like your friend. You two should come in more often. Now what can I get you?”
David was about to protest further, but the void in his stomach interrupted, and then the light weight of his wallet had the final say. He ordered a large sandwich with multiple sides.
“Coming right up, hun. Don’t hesitate if either of you needs anything at all.”
David smiled as she walked away.
“She’s quite cute,” said The Prophet. “And I’d say she likes you.”
David averted his gaze and shrugged. “Thanks for dinner.”
The Prophet leaned forward, staring intently at David, hands clasped together and resting on the table. “Now then….”
That stare was unnerving, and David searched for anywhere else to look.
“Was it fleeing from loveless parents that brought you here? Was it their lives of self-loathing and self-destruction that finally drove you to run?”
“Were you also marked a pariah by those you trusted?”
What was going on here? This wasn’t just some random crazy guy. A strong uneasiness washed over him.
“And were you replaced by another at your profession?”
“Have you been following me or something?” David was seriously entertaining thoughts of leaving. The last thing he wanted to add to his already long list of problems was a stalker.
From the inside of his suit The Prophet pulled out a book. It was small, about the size of a common paperback, but with worn paper bound in ancient leather that had begun to crack around the edges. On the cover, burned into the leather, was a simple but odd symbol that looked vaguely like an hourglass, or something similar. The Prophet didn’t so much hold the book as he cradled it, seeming to slip into a reverie as he did. Closing his eyes, The Prophet spoke a series of words under his breath that David couldn’t quite catch before looking up again, his placid demeanor returned.
“I had never seen you before you walked in that door. Faith alone has guided me here.” The stranger held out the book to David. “Here, see for yourself.”
David eyed the book with suspicion. “Nope. I think I’m good. Thanks anyway.”
The Prophet gently laid the book down on the table between them, his eyes never leaving David’s until that ponderous gaze drove David to look away. The Prophet placed his hand on the book.
“David, Do you know how I persuaded those to men to leave?”
David thought for a moment, then looked up. “No.”
“Do you know how I know all those things about you?”
“Do you know why I’m here?”
“David, I understand how this must look from your point of view, and your hesitation is more than reasonable. If you didn’t doubt me I would be worried. And on a day like this, that has been one frustrating disappointment after another for you, I’m sure you feel that whatever it is I’m about is one more tribulation your life doesn’t need.
“But you should listen. In this book are answers. Answers to why I’m here, and why you are as well. But more importantly, you’ll find in these pages the answer to your purpose. Most people spend their entire lives seeking the answer to that question. How special must you be to have it inscribed within these pages and handed to you?”
For just a moment, David thought he felt hope — but he wasn’t stupid. Whatever this was, it wasn’t real.
“Look,” David began, “if you’re here to ‘save me from a life of sin’ or however it goes, I can save us both some time, I’m not interested.”
“David, do you know what separates my followers from those of others who have come before me?”
David sighed. “No, and I don’t really care, but I get the feeling you’re going to tell me anyway.”
“The only faith they need is in my fulfillment of the Lacuna Augury’s will, because they’ve seen the power and rewards it professes, and have not found them wanting.” The Prophet pulled an envelope from his suit coat which strained to contain its contents, and placed it beside the book. “I drove those men from this place by wielding that power, and there are still rewards for you to rightfully collect, but instead of trying to convince you of that, take this as an unconditional gift, and decide for yourself if you’ll read the truth.”
The prophet pushed the envelope over to David, then waited in silence. David, dubious but unsure what harm it could do too look, picked up the envelope and opened it. His eyes went wide and shot back and forth between the contents and The Prophet. Finally, he set the envelope down, confounded, and stared long and hard at the book before him.
“Just open it anywhere.”
David sighed, certain he would regret it, but picked up the book. For a moment he thought he heard several people whispering, but then it was gone. Opening the book to a random page, he started reading.
Meet The Opener of the Way, for he is the third sign, the oblation of lasting peace, and needs the want of his heart supplicated to abrogate his doubts. In these lands, after the second sign — the coming of The Warden of the Sealed Path — he shall be found by The Second Prophet, who will know his way.
He will be before his twenty-first year, and will come alone. You will know him by his portents. He will have abandoned loveless parents, his disdain for their lives mired in self-loathing and self-destruction will be plain. This will have brought him. He will have been marked as a pariah by those he trusted. This will have brought him. He will have been replaced in his trade. This will have brought him.
A kind and alluring serving woman will ward him from enmity, but it will only hold a moment. The Second Prophet must banish them, and reveal the prophecy to the Opener of Ways. He must join The Warden of the Sealed Path, their journey one, lest all be forsaken, and leave The Way closed for all time.
David closed the book and handed it back to The Prophet.“How much is in that envelope?”
“Ten thousand dollars.”