Instant Family

by Julie Paul

Instant_FamilyOriginally published in The Jealousy Bone, Emdash Publishing, Victoria BC. 

When Lovey found out that I activated our baby without her, she was pretty choked.

“We were going to be together when it happened,” she said, in her little voice. “I had my outfit, the candles, the aromatherapy—”

“I couldn’t wait,” I told her. “The waiting was killing me.” All of this was on the phone, over which she could hear the baby screaming its newborn lungs out—a healthy sign, the instructions said, let it cry for at least 3 minutes and no more than ten. We were up to four and a half.

“It wasn’t killing you,” she said softly. “You just hate to wait. I thought we were on the same page about this. After all we’ve been through.”

“It was worse than knowing where my presents are and not opening them,” I said. “Worse than waiting for my father’s estate to be settled. I’m sorry, Lovey. I just had to go ahead.”

She started crying a little. “I’m not mad about your enthusiasm. I just wanted to be there. I wanted to, you know, be a part of it.”

“You wanted to help. I should have waited.” I was a schmuck. I know. Since when does a woman not want to be present at the activation of her child? It happens, of course, people do it alone, but it wasn’t in our plans. We were supposed to be together.

To be honest, I didn’t want her help with this one. This one was going to be mine, although of course, we would share it 50/50: the diapers, the sling-wearing, the high-pitched babbling. Secretly, though, all mine.

“What’s wrong with me, Henry? Do you think I couldn’t handle it, you know, if…”

“Nothing’s wrong with you,” I lied. “I love you.”

I do love her. But I also knew what she’d eaten for dinner last night, at her favourite Greek cantina. No one wants a garlic-scented baby. That smell can hang around for weeks—even Pampers can’t disguise it.

There’s something else, too. Her voice drives me batty. She is so soft-spoken I can barely hear her. It’s not a mumbling thing: I’ve dealt with that in my time. This is volume, pure and simple. She speaks to everyone just above whisper-level. Do you think I wanted to pass that onto our son? Have you ever met a man who speaks like a mouse? Did you want to give him a job, or marry him, or even sit beside him on the bus? I don’t think so.

“Is there something wrong with us, then?”

I groaned. “Honey, I’ve gotta go. The baby is freaking out. And the booklet says—”

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll see you at five.”

Then I remembered why the baby might be crying. “Wait!” I yelled into the phone just before she hung up. “Can you pick up some formula? It only came with one can and it’s almost empty.”

“Okay,” she said. “But aren’t you even going tell me?”

“What?”

She was speaking so softly I could barely make out her voice over the baby.

“Well?” she asked. “Boy or girl?”

“Congratulations, momma,” I said. “You’ve got a baby boy.”

She hung up without saying a thing. At least I think she did. All I heard was the baby.

*

We’d been waiting for months for the package to arrive, after finally going through the second screening. But this morning, there it was on the front porch, an unmarked brown box like the one the sex toys came in the year I surprised Lovey for her birthday. I think the risk the company takes in not marking the boxes is considerable, the way the mailman just leaves them on the steps like that. I know there are people out there who are desperate to get their hands on this kind of product. Yet the privacy is worth it: even though we’re not ashamed to be doing this, even though it’s a perfectly viable means to an end, still, people have a problem with it. One day, no one will care whether you came from a box or a uterus. But we’re not there yet.

The package is only part of the recipe. Actually creating the finished product takes a certain amount of skill and intention. In fact, many people say that the intention may be the biggest part of it, thinking good thoughts as your baby comes to life right in front of you. There are books out there now on what to meditate on when the big moment comes, including DVDs attached to the back cover that will play scenes of rustic beauty while you make your child come to life. There are others, too, of a woman giving birth, the old way, because some people believe that hearing the screams of a mother in pain does something good to a baby’s ears, that it simulates what a birthed baby would hear. I don’t get it. Aren’t we trying to get away from all of that?

(We bought a book about Provence, France, that came with a bottle of lavender and a classical music CD attached, but I completely forgot where we put it. Instead I chose some electronica to get me in the groove. Like I said, my baby.)

Once the package came, we were going to wait until the timing was perfect. Set the mood, prepare ourselves, turn the heat on in the nursery, gather our spit over a few hours to make sure it had variety. We were going to collect it in a beautiful bowl, stir it together, let it mix well before adding the boiling water and sprinkling in the powder that would work its way into becoming our son.

Instead, I produced massive amounts of my own saliva and measured it into a Tupperware cup. The recipe had an optional ingredient, and since I had nothing to lose, no one to dispute it with, yes, I added my own “juice” to the mix. I’m not sure if it’s true that it increases the chances of giving us a boy, but that’s what I wanted. I figured it was worth a shot, so to speak. And look. Just look at this little guy.

 *

Here’s something you should know: we were selected a few years ago for the program, and we had a little girl. We did all the right things: rituals, blessings, friends gathered at the window while we stirred the pot, but she didn’t make it, not even past the first five minutes. We thought it was us, something we had done to make it go wrong, but everyone told us it wasn’t our fault. “Bad things happen to good people” was written on about five cards we received that week. There was no one to blame. When we found out a year later about the faulty packaging, once the law suits began piling up against IF 1-2-3, we considered filing suit ourselves. But we’d been through enough. And, we wanted to try again. What company would let someone have another chance with its product if he’d taken them to the cleaners in a courtroom? We grieved in private for our little one, barely here and then gone. Genny was her name, chosen months before. We grieved, and then waited for our second go.

This little one is feisty, I’ll give him that. Right away he was screaming, opening his eyes, waving his little fists around like he already had a problem with the world. I have to tell you, the sound of his loud cries was music to my ears, living as I do with a quiet freak. Once I got the feeding device strapped onto my chest and the formula flowing from the silicone nipple, he settled right down. Will he remember this, our first moments together? Will I imprint on him the way I’m supposed to, the way a parent did in the pre-IF days? Will we pass the first stage of assessment? Will we see this little guy off to school one day? Will we really, truly be his parents, the ones he calls Mom and Dad and loves and then hates and then loves again?

The first check-in is supposed to be within the first week after activation. If the baby seems happy, healthy, if the APGAR ratings are good and he’s settling when we pick him up, then we get to keep him. The next check-in is at one year. Most parents keep their babies for good if they make it past that one. That’s the one we have to ace.

 *

From my station on the couch I can see outside, but no one can see me. It’s perfect. I’m not ready to have the world involved in my little project.

From here I can see Judy Taylor, our next-door neighbour, walking down the street. She’s out of her pyjamas, finally. Poor lady. She’s been through so much. I’ve been catching glimpses of her through their kitchen window, from our kitchen window, and most of the time, she looks like she’s just rolled out of bed.

I’ve been looking for work lately. I take my time with the dishwashing.

She’s looking this way, checking for signs of someone being home. Shit. I’m not prepared for visitors yet. Walk on by, Judy. Walk on by.

Thank you, Judy.

Judy and Derek got their first IF 1-2-3 box a few months ago, back when a weird weather pattern came through and the snow was piling up everywhere like feathers. They were so worried the box had been outside too long, since they both work and didn’t get home to bring it in until 6 pm. If only they’d asked me, I would’ve helped out. In any case, everything seemed fine, and they went through the steps, and then, out came twin girls. That was a shock, to say the least. IF 1-2-3 has taken great care to ensure that babies come in singles these days, after the poor family that ended up with three identical instant girls.

It’s funny, but no one can seem to handle multiples these days, not like they did twenty years ago. Everyone who couldn’t conceive went to incredible lengths to get an embryo implanted inside them, and the hormones they took made the number of multiple births skyrocket. That’s why people started turning to IF instead. The price of raising three kids at once is only one factor, of course. The complications from birthing a baby were getting everyone worked up. I pity the poor midwives, who’d just gotten their profession really rolling when IF came along. Now they’re calling themselves Re-con-Naissance workers, hiring themselves out to nervous families to ease the worries about activation and those first few vital days. We thought we might hire one this time, after what happened before, but in the end, we thought we’d rather do it on our own. Guess I took that to a whole new level. I really should call Lovey and apologize.

Anyway, Judy’s twins seemed fine, eating and pooping at regular intervals, holding fingers in their fists, drooling with red cheeks during the first teething phase. The first week check-in officer took a healthy bribe to make sure the news of having two didn’t make it back to the corporation and everything was going well. Then, at five months, one of those black IF vans pulled into the driveway, and within minutes, the babies were being strapped into carpods in the backseat. The poor mother was running after the van as it drove away, holding out two pink teddy bears. They won’t sleep without them! Judy cried. They’re Lullaby Bear-Bears! She collapsed on the sidewalk and stayed there until her husband rushed out to take her back inside.

It took us a few days to figure out what had happened. It turns out the package they’d received in the mail wasn’t meant for them, but instead should have gone to Mango Waterson, the one-woman musical wonder. It was all one big mix-up. Mango had secretly paid IF 1-2-3 a huge amount of cash to give her a set of twins they had prevented from going into circulation. She wanted to have two kids the way her mother did, but she didn’t want to wait between them, given her touring schedule and so on. It’s maddening what that kind of money can do for you. IF itself is pricey, let me tell you, but to have them work on your own special case costs a fortune.

Our neighbour has plenty of cash now, after IF agreed to pay for psychological damages, and she’s been promised one of the new models as soon as they work the bugs out. I imagine she’ll be coming over here a lot, once she hears about our little son.

Perhaps we can even help Judy out: with the price of the recommended water to mix with the formula, it will be cheaper to pay her to nurse him. Once the milk starts flowing, it’s easier to just keep it going than stop and start again. Lovey didn’t even get started with Genny. It takes a few days for the lactation hormones to kick in, and even then, the latching takes awhile to master. That’s why this strap-on set of breasts is ingenious. I can be a mommy just like the next guy. I just stay away from the window.

*

You think it’s wrong, don’t you? At first everyone here thought the idea of IF was preposterous, too. Babies aren’t soup, or orange juice, the cries went up. Babies need a slow percolation in utero to develop in the way they were meant to. Ah, meaning, intention, the argument always came back to the natural state of things. Burning oil felt natural but was it? Global warming felt pretty natural, just like weather, until we couldn’t ignore it anymore. Were the water shortages, and the ensuing madness, natural? No. We do what we can to survive. We are creative beings. Just because the blood of his mother—or any mother, directly—did not flow through him, does not make my son any less human.

Besides, how they do it is just like how a body does it. The fateful meeting of sperm and ovum from anonymous, highly-screened donors occurs in a controlled environment—and then replication takes over. The lab watches until the embryo stage is complete, at 10 weeks, and then, after some secret patented process, they freeze-dry and powder the embryos under strict controls. No one is hurt, nothing is lost, and everyone who wants a baby gets one, in the end. As long as they’re deemed to be suitable, of course. Do you know what that’s done for the morale of single women over 35? Do you have any idea how many marriages, not to mention egos, vaginas, and flat bellies have been saved? I don’t have the numbers, they won’t let that information out at this point, but I know this city alone is crawling with IF babies. No pun intended.

Lovey wanted to do it the old way. At first, she was totally against this system, but we won’t tell that to our new son, now will we? I went along with it, of course, I mean, trying to get a woman pregnant is not such a bad way to spend your time, and we’ve got a decent set of bones between us. But I knew the risks, and the odds. I wanted to do it the new way. I wanted to save us all the trouble.

Then, when Genny didn’t last, Lovey had more doubts. She’s quite set in her ways, you know, with her all-recycled wardrobe and her beeswax-only candle rule. I don’t miss paraffin in the least, but she’s not even willing to try the new, cheaper hybrid candles. I’m not exactly fond of the idea of burning rat fat in the house either, but you do what you need to. Now, with the baby, that isn’t going to happen, ever. I’ll bet she won’t even let me run the environmental simulator inside anymore. There’s no way she’ll want to smell peanut butter cookies baking. You’re missing the point, she’ll say. Peanuts kill children. Why would I want to even fake that?

*

My boy is asleep now, finally. I’d put him in the cradle but I don’t want to wake him up. And I like the warmth of him, his little chest pushing into mine with every breath. Once Lovey gets home, I know she’ll want to take over, which is the mothering instinct kicking in. She’ll want to strap the milk machine on right away. She’ll want to sing him her family lullaby in that sweet annoying voice, to try and lull him into believing that he came from her womb.

Can’t say I blame her. It’s weird, but when I look at him, this boy, this newly sprung creature lying in my arms, I swear I see my sister’s eyes starting back at me. The manual says that’s natural, to see resemblances where there are none: after all, how much genetic material can be transferred through spit? I know the old double-helix trick does not come from blending semen with saliva in a bowl in some kitchen by a man standing all alone. But still—it might be an energetic thing. It might even be magic.

He’s awake again, squirming in my arms, trying to tell me something. “You wanna watch television?” I ask him in the quiet, tender tone they recommend talking in for the first year. “You wanna meet your Daddy’s favourite team?”

He lets out a wail so loud I nearly drop him. Atta boy. “Okay, so no baseball,” I say, and I plug him back into the silicone boob. He’s a smart little guy, he latches on again right away and swallows great big mouthfuls of milk without choking. At this rate, we’re going to be out of formula long before my wife gets home with more. The package came with a recipe in case of such emergencies but I doubt we have half of the ingredients. Who stocks dried egg whites anymore? Who has extra ionically-charged water to mix them with? And soy milk. You think I want genetically modified ingredients in my son? Luckily this stuff he’s drinking now seems to knock him out after only a few minutes. This time, I’m going to try and put him down on the couch so I can get cleaned up before my wife gets home.

But before I can do that, I hear a car in the driveway. So she’s come home early, unable to wait. That’s my girl. She—

The doorbell is ringing. Shit. It’s not her. And we made a promise that we wouldn’t tell anyone about the next one until we were sure he/she was going to make it. If I put him down, he might start freaking out. If I don’t, how will I ever disguise a strap-on set of breasts and a wiggling newborn?

I’m not answering. Instead I go into the kitchen to spy out the window.

It’s not a car in the driveway. It’s a flipping IF1-2-3 van. What the hell are they doing here? They don’t usually visit until at least a week after the activation—and I haven’t even notified them yet. Unless. Unless they’ve known from the first second. Are they spying on me right now? Shit! Or maybe this baby is a new model and has some kind of sensor in him. Oh God. What am I going to do now?

They’re knocking. There are at least two, because I can hear them talking to each other. I sneak back into the hallway so I can hear what they’re saying. The baby is still sleeping, thank god.

“Hello?” one of them, a man, says. “Mr. and Mrs. Taylor?”

I don’t answer.

A woman’s voice now: “We’re from IF headquarters. We’re just here to welcome the baby, friends. Would you mind letting us in?”

Another pause. I hold my breath.

“It’s very important that we see you, friends. We are required to make visual contact with the child before reporting back. If we don’t, we’re required to obtain a search warrant for your house. You don’t want that, do you?”

I don’t move.

“Damn,” the guy says, in a quieter voice, “maybe they’re out for a walk or something.”

“No,” the woman says. “I know they’re here.”

“No car in the driveway.”

“So maybe one of them is at work.”

“That’s weird, then. Activating a kid by yourself.”

“I know. But it wouldn’t be the first time.” She pumps up her voice. “Mr. and Mrs. Taylor, we just want to congratulate you on the arrival of your son. May we please come in for a moment? We have a gift for you that we can’t leave outside.” She pounds on the door to punctuate her statement.

Of course, the baby wakes up. I try to cover his face up, but he yells, rather than cries, as if he’s mad to be taken out of a beautiful dream state. What do babies dream about, anyway? How will we ever know?

“Aha!” I hear the woman say. “I hear a baby in there,” she says down at mail slot level.

“Congratulations!” the man calls out. “You’re going to be very happy. Now may we please come in to give you this gift?”

Now the baby is really crying. I slip the nipple into his mouth to quiet him. “No, thank you,” I say. “We’re doing fine. I’ll call to set up the first visit.”

“Sir,” the woman says. “We’re afraid you’ll have to do as we say.”

Just as she starts banging on the door again, I hear another car pull in. This time, I know it’s my wife.

I run to the kitchen phone to call her cell. She answers right away.

“Honey!” I say. “These people want to come in. I didn’t even tell them we made the baby yet, they just knew!”

“What’s wrong? Who are they? What’s wrong with them coming in?”

I make myself take a deep breath. “Just stay in the car talking to me. Smile at them, make them think you’re talking to someone else.”

“Okay,” she says. “I just waved at them. Are they from IF?”

“That’s what they say.”

“Well, how did they know about it? You didn’t call them? Did anyone see you with the baby?” Her voice is so mild, it’s like we’re talking about the frigging weather.

“No, no. There must be some kind of sensor. I know as much as you do. But I don’t trust them. They want to give us a gift of some kind.”

“I can see a box beside the woman. A big box of diapers.”

“Diapers! It’s probably some kind of spy device in disguise.”

“I’m telling you, it’s a carton of Pampers. Are you alright?”

“Jesus. So that’s what they’re afraid to leave on the porch? I guess they are worth a few bucks, but who would think to steal a man’s box of diapers?”

“Honey, I’m getting out of the car now. I’ll talk to you inside.”

And before she hears me yelling at her to stop, she hangs up.

I take up station in the kitchen, on the floor, so I can hear everything from the screen window. I can hear my wife getting out of the car.

“Hello,” the IF woman says to her. “You must be Mrs. Taylor.” I can picture her sticking out her manicured paw for my wife to shake, to assure her that everything is just fine. “Congratulations on your son.”

“Hi, Mrs. Taylor!” The man says it like he’s talking to a toddler, saying peek-a-boo.

I strain to hear my wife’s voice. “I’m sorry,” she says, which is just like her. “Did you say Taylor?”

“Yes, Mrs. Taylor, right? You just activated your son?”

And what my wife is doing right now I do not know, but I can imagine. I can picture her starting to shake her head, and stop walking towards our door, but look at it, like the door might give her the answer she suddenly is in need of, namely, why is this woman calling her by the neighbour’s name?

“You have the wrong house,” she says, quietly. “The Taylors are next door.” At this she must be pointing towards the rusty brown house beside us—why anyone would even think of painting their house that colour is beyond me anyway—and I’ll bet you her confusion is slowly being turned into realization, yes, she must be putting two and two together, she’s good at that, she—

“Really?” the woman says. “But there’s a baby inside your house, correct?”

My wife lets out some kind of noise I’ve never heard before, a cross between a hiccup and a gasp that I can only call a sob, although I have always thought of sob as only a verb, as in “to sob.” She knows what I’ve done.

I’ve activated the Taylors’ baby.

“What is going on here?” the man says, in a tone of put-on authority. A hands-on hips, park ranger voice.

My wife is crying now, really sobbing, albeit quietly, and I can feel the baby start to stir in my arms again, as if he’s already attuned to the world’s sadness, his mother’s distress, waking up in her time of need even though he hasn’t even met her yet.

“I don’t have the foggiest,” the IF woman says. “But all I know is that the baby in this house was activated at 2:35 pm today and that we’re here to ensure that it meets all of our current standards. And, of course, to bring the parents a little gift.”

“But where is Mrs. Taylor?” the man asks my wife. “Is she in your house with the baby? I am sure, given the unfortunate circumstances of the duplicate activation and removal, that she might want to have it elsewhere. We understand that’s what neighbours do, Mrs….?”

My wife is still crying, but eventually she says our last name with as much dignity as she can, given the circumstances. “Peterson.”

And once again, the baby puts forth a yell that startles me into nearly dropping him before he settles into a nice general sort of crying.

Someone is banging on the door. “Mr. Peterson,” the man is shouting. “Would you and Mrs. Taylor please come out here now. And bring the baby.”

I slip the nipple into his mouth yet again and all is quiet.

I did all of this for Lovey. I did. I knew she wouldn’t be able to handle the Taylors having another baby, not after what happened to ours. Not after failing the screening.

No, okay, so we didn’t make it through a second time. It was just because of a stupid traffic violation I had in Chicago. Anyone could have done it. A baby in a carpod would NOT have been hurt, at least nothing more than a few bruises. “Higher than acceptable risk factors” was how they put it on the rejection slip. If Lovey had been home to get the mail that day, she would’ve been destroyed. Luckily I have no employment at the present. Luckily I am always home to accept the mail. Luckily, I am able to watch for deliveries to all of our neighbours’ houses.

“I’ll go see if Mrs. Taylor is in there,” my wife says, sniffling. “Maybe I could go in and bring the baby out, if she’s nervous.”

“Alright,” the man says. “But we’re going to have to call in backup if you’re not out in five minutes. This is a serious matter, Mrs. Peterson. We need a visual affirmation.”

My wife’s key is in the door. Lovey, the new mother on the block. Lovey, the woman I have given my life to, so that we may go forth and create new life. The woman I have betrayed and stolen for, in order for us to have this wittle boy. Thanks to IF 1-2-3—and their ridiculous shipping policies—we have had our second chance.

When she sees us on the floor beside the kitchen table she drops her purse and the shopping bags. The cans of formula hit the lino with a considerable thunk—I know they’re going to be dented—and the baby startles with the sound and twitches as if he’s been hit but he keeps on nursing. Lovey’s crying again, and when she slides to the floor and joins us, and fits her finger into the little guy’s grasp, I just feel the happiest I have ever felt.

“Congratulations, momma,” I whisper, as I hand my son to her.

“Oh, honey, what have you done?” She’s not looking at me, only into the eyes of this newborn, nameless child. “Why couldn’t you have waited for our own package?”

“What do you mean?” I ask her, pretending one last time. “I’ve made us a baby, all by myself.”

Now she’s looking at me. “They called me Mrs. Taylor. What kind of deal did you make with her?”

“Deal? No deal. She doesn’t know a thing.”

Lovey looks slightly relieved, then stricken. “But she’ll want her baby. We can’t keep him.”

“He’s ours,” I tell her. “Mine, anyway. He’s got my seed in him.”

She stares at me. “Don’t you ever tell that to Mrs. Taylor.”

“She’s not getting him.”

She wipes tears from her face. “We’ve got four minutes before they’re taking him,” she says. “That’s three more than we had with Genny.”

I can’t believe this. My own wife is going to betray me. After what I’ve done for her. She doesn’t realize what this might mean. Jail time, probably, and then where will she be, except alone in this house with no baby or husband and a connection to crime. IF 1-2-3 would never give her a second glance.

She kisses the baby on the cheek. “It won’t be long until we get our own.”

“We didn’t pass the screening.”

I’ve never seen that look she’s giving me. It’s like one side of her face is being built and the other is falling down. The tears come back. “So there is something wrong with us.”

“No, nothing. They’re just wankers.”

“Was it your accident? Is that it?”

I ignore her deduction. “This is our last chance!” I say. “Unless… Yes, I’ve got it! We find the sensor and remove it.”

She shakes her head. “How do you even know there’s a sensor?”

“There has to be. They worked out a new formula, remember? If we destroy it, they’ll think the baby has died.”

The IF man bangs on the door again. “Two minutes, Mrs. Peterson.”

“You’re going crazy,” Lovey says. “We have to give him back.”

“Give him to me. I’ll find the stupid sensor and take it out myself.” I reach out and try to grasp the baby around the middle, but Lovey pulls him away before I can catch hold.

“No!” Lovey screams as she gets up and runs towards the door. “You’ll hurt the baby!”

The baby is screaming now, too, but it’s Lovey’s yelling that surprises me. She hasn’t raised her voice like that in years. It’s healthy, I always tell her. You’ve got to let it out. I just can’t, she says. I wasn’t born with that kind of wiring.

Apparently, she was. “Wait!” I say. “I have another plan.”

I know my wife. I know she’ll stop before getting to the door, because she is—

“What’s going on in there?” the IF woman calls. “We’re calling for backup now, Petersons.”

—desperate to have a baby. Yes, she wants to do what’s right, but she wants a baby more.

“Take the baby to the window and show them he’s okay. While you’re doing that, I’ll get the bikes out of the shed, and we can leave down the back lane.”

She looks at me. I look at her. The baby is crying, but she’s started that rocking motion that I’ve seen parents do, a jiggling with their legs and arms at the same time to bounce kids into calming down. It’s working. “Nice one, mama,” I say. “He likes you.”

Slowly, a smile starts compiling itself on her face. “You really think this will work?”

I have no idea. Bike against van is never a winning situation, but we’ve got to try something. And what kind of father would I be if I didn’t at least try to save my own son? Selfish, that’s what. “Look at that baby,” I tell her. “He’s got your nose.”

Copyright 2008 Julie Paul. All rights reserved.

Read The Story Behind “Instant Family” on our blog.

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About Julie Paul

Julie Paul’s first book of short stories, The Jealousy Bone, was published in 2008. Stories, poems and essays have appeared in many literary journals, including The Dalhousie Review, The Fiddlehead, Event, PRISM International and The Rusty Toque. Her second collection of short stories, The Pull of the Moon, will be published by Brindle & Glass this year. She lives in Victoria, BC and at www.juliepaul.ca.

Julie Paul

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