Escape Pod 860: Solo Cooking for the Recently Revived


Solo Cooking for the Recently Revived

by Aimee Picchi

I hide my right hand behind my back when Jamie steps into the rehab center’s kitchen. Like all the rest of the reintegration counselors, he’s a Survivor. And Survivors always stare at our scars.

“Let’s start with our motto,” Jamie says.

The class intones: “Food is life.

My friend Myra hitches her thumbs on her belt, cinched to the smallest hole, and rolls her eyes.

“And?” Jamie prods.

To cook is human,” we finish.

Every time I say it I imagine the motto will fix me, erase my scars and everything else that happened in the last year. Get me one step closer to Carter. I once confided my belief to Myra and she laughed. That motto’s not for our benefit, sweetie, she had said. It’s so they can believe we’re still just like them.

Jamie gestures for me to join him at the front of the classroom, the home-ec lab inside a former middle school. About twenty of us are lined up at ovens and sinks and Formica countertops where students scratched blocky initials inside of hearts. I don’t want to think about what probably happened to the kids.

“Edda’s going to teach you a cake recipe.”

I clear my throat. “It’s called crazy cake because it doesn’t include eggs or butter. I’m told there might not be much of either ingredient when we get back home.”

Not that I ever baked this cake when I was a pastry chef—it’s not sophisticated enough to sell at a bakery—but Jamie had said it didn’t matter because the point is to help each other relearn basic life skills.

When I pass a photocopied recipe to Myra, she whispers, “What’s crazy is to think this is going to make a difference. Look at us, Edda.”

The kitchen is filled with a motley group of twisted limbs, faces calling out for reconstruction, missing feet and half-scalped heads. Myra’s scar runs from her temple to her jaw. Even though our wounds are all different, we’re all emaciated. Nothing more than bones covered with scar tissue.

“Broken things can be fixed,” I say.

Myra dumps a cup of sugar into a bowl. “If you can actually enjoy eating this cake, I’ll believe you.”

We spend the next hour mixing and pouring, my unbalanced hands fumbling with the spatula as I scrape the batter from the bowl.

After we put the cakes in the oven, Jamie lectures about staying hydrated and well-nourished. As he wipes sweat from his forehead, it occurs to me he might be nervous, standing up here in front of two dozen of the Revived. He’s avoided looking at Myra, who has a sly smile as she licks her lips every so often with the tip of her pink tongue.

Then the timers ding and the tension is broken as we gather near our ovens. “Smells great,” Jamie calls from across the kitchen.

I avoid the flick of Myra’s eyes. We can’t smell anything.

We stab our forks into warm slices of cake.

Heat coats the inside of my mouth and a burst of hope expands inside me that maybe I’ll taste something this time. My hope quickly fades as the cake cools on my tongue, leaving my mouth filled with a substance with the taste and texture of clay.

The cure flushed out the disease, but it also took away our appetites.

Around the kitchen, the other Revived struggle with the cake. After a half-hearted attempt to eat a few bites, Myra flips her plate into the garbage. She pivots to the fridge, cracking open the door and retrieving a can of En-Liven. She grins and places a finger up to her lips. We’re not supposed to drink the energy drink unless it’s an emergency, even though it’s the only sustenance we can stomach. It has no taste, but the drink’s mix of caffeine, sugar, and carnitine shoots a thrill through our bodies. She slams it down, then tosses the can in the trash before Jamie takes notice.

I shove another forkful of cake into my mouth and fight an impulse to toss my plate on top of Myra’s. I’m annoyed that she was right, but unwilling to give up just yet.

Jamie strolls over with his tablet, taking notes.

“You’ve come a long way in three months.” Then he says the words I’ve been hoping to hear since I woke up in the facility: “You’re both ready to be reintegrated into society. What are you going to do after you’re discharged?”

“I’m going to start fresh. Get a new job back in New York. Maybe in clean-up. You know, do my part in reconstructing the country,” Myra says smoothly. But it’s all a lie: she’s told me she’ll join the Revival, the traveling group of the Revived who subsist on En-Liven and shun Survivors.

Jamie nods, a relieved smile stretching across his damp face. “And you, Edda?”

“I’m going back home to Carter.” Giddiness travels down my arms and to the ends of my fingers at the thought of going home. If they could, my fingertips would shoot out confetti and sparklers, like a parade on the Fourth of July. “We’d been planning our wedding. I put a deposit on a wedding dress and we’d picked a venue.”

I push back the thought that the dress would be too large for me now, the hotel probably in ruins.

Jamie seems genuinely pleased as I rattle on. I’ve provided the correct answer; the government wants us to return to our former lives, even though the counselors have told us that the only jobs open to us will be in clean-up. Not many businesses from before the pandemic are still operating.

After he’s out of earshot, Myra snorts. “They’ll never see us as really human.”

I press my lips together, then exhale quickly. “You might as well say, ‘No use trying.’”

Myra turns away, hurt. The counselors have taught us to model our behavior on what we were like before the illness, and because I remember myself as a warm and kind person, I drape my right arm around Myra’s shoulders in a shoulder-hug. She returns the embrace, but won’t meet my eyes. It makes me want to throw the cake against the wall and admit that I often doubt whether I’m the same person. But I’m clinging to whatever hope I can find.

My arms tighten around her briefly. Then I toss the cake into the garbage.

* * *

A line has formed by the time I reach the only working phone in the center. Mobile phones are allowed, but very few of us have them. Lost in the weeks and months when we were sick, tossed under a bush or cracked underfoot as we ran in herds.

The others waiting to use the phone are adrift in their own thoughts. Me, I’m imagining Carter when I tell him the news. I can picture his slow smile, the one he wore when he proposed. The way his eyes squeeze at the outer corners when he’s happy.
When I get to the front of the line, I dial Carter’s mobile number and wait for him to pick up.

Carter doesn’t pick up.

I hang up and keep my hand on the receiver. Maybe he needs a minute to reach the phone.

“Only two tries, Edda,” Jamie warns. “Then it’s Tim’s turn.”

“You ain’t the only one getting out of here.” Tim’s a big man with most of his right calf missing. During the past few months, I’ve heard all about his husband and their small fishing boat in Portland, Maine. “Don’t hog the line.”

I punch each digit with deliberation. I imagine Carter running through our apartment, trying to find his mobile after missing my first try.

The phone rings.

Or maybe he’s working late. Maybe he’s on his bicycle and his phone is in his messenger bag and he can’t reach it—

“Um, hello?”

“Carter!” My voice sounds too high. “I’ve got some good news.”

A moment of silence. “Oh?”

“I’m getting discharged on Monday. I’ll take a bus to Burlington and should be back at the apartment by dinner at the latest.”
I hear the creak of his favorite chair. “Edda, whoa. What do you mean, discharged?”

I tell him about how we’re learning how to stay hydrated and take care of ourselves. My right hand is slick with sweat and my thumb and two fingers are clutching the phone receiver so tightly their joints ache.

Softly, he interrupts me. “Are you sure you’re ready? I thought the rehab process would take longer. I wouldn’t want you to rush it.”

“My counselor says I’m ready to leave.”

Carter goes silent again. I can hear his breathing. I could listen to it all day. “It’s a lot to take in, Edda.”

“We’ve got a lot to do. Planning the wedding and all that.”

Jamie is tapping his watch, signaling that I have to hang up.

“See you on Monday, okay?”

His voice is so faint that I almost can’t hear it. “Okay.”

I hang up and stare at the wall for a minute. It’s hard for me to know where to begin, how to think about what he was saying. Or wasn’t saying. I know it’s going to be hard—I have no doubts about that—but I’m ready to get back to a normal life.

Tim swings forward on his crutches. He leans against the wall and gives me a quizzical look. “Everything good, hon?”
I hide my crippled hand behind my back and smile. “Everything’s great, Tim. The phone’s all yours.”

* * *

On discharge day, Myra tosses a duffel bag onto her cot and starts throwing in socks, underwear, her two clean pairs of pants.
“Edda, promise me you’ll come to the Revival if things don’t work out for you.”

“Plenty of the Revived go back home,” I tell her. “Remember that documentary they showed us?”

Myra smooths her bedcover and screws up her face. “Mmm-hmmm,” she said. “Propaganda.”

“Cynic.”

“They want us to believe we can integrate. If we can’t, then the country’s in deep shit. They need us to come back and start driving trucks and working road crews and cleaning up all the garbage that’s left over.”

“I have to try.” I give her a quick hug and she stalks off in search of the bus heading to Woodstock, New York, where the Revival is camped out for the summer.

The other passengers on my bus are quiet, staring out the window. I try to strike up a conversation with my seatmate, but she pulls on headphones and closes her eyes.

Even though I’ve seen videos about the damage, I’m not prepared. Highway signs are riddled with bullets and buildings stand burned and desolate. Garbage, everywhere. Pieces of paper flying through the air; crumpled balls of clothing tossed in ditches.
I slump in my seat, pull my jacket around my ribs and avoid looking out the window for the rest of the trip.

By the time the bus reaches Burlington the sun is setting behind the Adirondacks, but there’s still enough light to make out the shattered glass walls of the bus depot. The LED display lights are on the fritz, blinking random numbers and towns.

“Good luck,” the bus driver says. The sincerity in his slurred voice causes me to turn around and take a closer look. Underneath his cap, his face is haunted by a missing eye and half a jaw. One of us. I give a brief nod and he closes the door and pulls out of the station.

The city looks like a scab: healing and bleeding, still itching and hurting. The streets are lined with broken-windowed homes and litter-covered lawns.

One of the few that has been cleaned up is the blue-turreted Victorian on the corner of my block. An older woman sits on a tattered lawn chair plunked in the center of its tidy front yard. Her white hair frizzles from her Red Sox baseball cap and her tie-died t-shirt features a blue heart bleeding into rings of green and yellow. Her legs are spread apart, feet akimbo, and she’s looking up and down the street, taking note of everything in her field of vision.

Her eyes narrow as I pass by. I feel her studying my emaciated frame and missing fingers.

“We shoulda killed you all,” she mutters.

I hurry to my apartment house, two doors down. My key slips from my shaking hands.

On my doorstep, the memory of the first days of the epidemic come flooding back. How Carter and I huddled in the apartment, arms wrapped around each other, as sirens screamed through our neighborhood. The silence that came afterwards was even worse.

But my memory is a blank from the day I grew feverish until I woke up in the facility.

My hands are shaking. I lean my head against the door and breathe deeply. This is where you are now. Not lost. Not sick. The crows call from the treetops. The smooth wood of the front door is reassuring, solid, an entrance that is still open to me. After a few seconds, my hands are steady enough to unlock the door.

I slip inside the apartment, calling Carter’s name.

No answer.

The apartment hasn’t changed. The Ikea bookshelves we bought in Montreal, the two paintings of red barns from the flea market. The hodgepodge brings back the excitement of decorating the apartment, our first together, and the plans we’d had for saving for a house after the wedding.

But the fridge shelves are almost empty, something that never happened before I got sick. All Carter’s managed to stock is a head of lettuce, some tofu, hot sauce, a few peppers, and some beer.

I imagine Carter’s surprise when he returns to the apartment, finding me there like nothing has changed. Dinner ready for him.

While I’m whisking the salad dressing and the stir-fry is steaming in the wok, a memory tugs at me: how Carter would avoid the apartment every time we got a visit from his brother, who struggled with addiction. Carter had harbored a grudge against him for what he put their parents through, but instead of just telling his brother how he felt when he visited, he’d vanish, making excuses about having to work or helping a friend.

The tug gives a yank and it’s like a million tons of rock are falling on my chest.

I can’t breathe. My legs feel as if they’ve lost muscle and bone.

Carter’s not here because he doesn’t want to be here.

How could I be so blind? I think back to our last conversation, how desperate I was not to hear his hesitation.
I find his note on the bedside table.

“Dear Edda,” it says. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. I understand the Revived don’t remember what happened before they were cured. I don’t blame you, or anyone else. But the pandemic—it changed me. There were things I had to do, Edda. I printed out some of my journal entries from that time, to help you understand. Just believe me that I’ll never stop feeling guilty.”

I flip through the loose pages, my eyes glazing over the paragraphs. I pick out individual phrases and words: Edda’s sick, don’t know what to do, locked her in the bathroom, oh god, we fought, knife, I sliced her hands, pushed her out the window. Can’t believe she’d survive that fall, but she’s gone.

I glance at my missing fingers.

When the tofu stir-fry is ready, I force myself to eat. My mouth feels coated in sludge and my mind is running a loop of an old saying: “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.”

I lift the fork to my mouth again and again, as if it will prove to myself that I’m no different than I was before.

A sudden rage sweeps over me, a red surge propelled by an arcane, unknowable force, and for a moment I’m able to push it away. I lean my head against the wall, feel its smooth coolness on my skin. Keep focused in the moment, as the reintegration counselors told us.

It works for a second.

Then the anger returns, even hotter.

I slam my fist into the wall.

Tears trickle down my cheeks and slip into my mouth. They’re tasteless and bland, not at all like how I remember when I was a kid and big, fat tears rolled into my mouth with briny sadness. I’m not the person I was before. Home isn’t the same, if I even have a home. I punch the wall again and again.

Life will never be normal again for any of us Revived.

* * *

On the bus to Woodstock, I keep my headphones on and stare at the seat in front of me.

My hand is throbbing and wrapped in gauze. No one on the bus is interested in talking and that suits me just fine.

The pulse of drums heralds the bus’s approach into Woodstock. The Revived gather along the road to welcome us, pounding on animal-skinned bongos and tablas with triumphant rhythms.

The bus pulls up to a small park in the center of town, where the Revived mill about the green. A few wear tattered brown robes, their bony hands stretching from their cuffs like a scarecrow’s twigs. En-Liven is everywhere: cans clutched in emaciated hands, empties thrown under bushes, in coolers resting under the trees.

Myra waves. Her eyes darken as she catches sight of my bandage.

“Reunion didn’t go the way you planned, huh?” She gives me a quick hug.

I don’t want to talk about Carter, so I shrug. “Looks like I found the Island of Misfit Toys.” My breathing relaxes, as if a steel band around my chest has been released. For once, I feel at ease. I don’t need to hide my missing fingers or skeletal frame.

The drums fade as we walk down a shady street. The homes are in better shape here, but everyone is as thin or thinner than me.

“Do any Survivors still live here?” I ask.

“If they do, they keep scarce.”

She leads me to a big white event tent. It’s the kind I had envisioned for our wedding. Glossy white on the top with peaks and valleys created by tent poles. Fluttering banners, fairy lights twinkling from the eaves.

“They won’t let you have any En-Liven until you’ve gone through orientation with Father Harold.” Myra shrugs. “It’s not so bad. Find me when you’re done and we’ll crack open some cold ones to celebrate.”

Worn oriental rugs line the tent’s interior and a few people I recognize from the bus are already sitting around in a semi-circle in folding chairs. An older man is talking in a voice that, despite its rough edges, is muted—the tip of his nose has been shorn off and he’s missing his ears.

They make space for me in the circle and I squeeze in. Harold is going through the basics of camp life: where to find En-Liven, the quiet hours, and what to do in case of a dispute with a neighbor.

“We operate on trust,” Harold says. “Trust is sacred for the Revived. How many of you weren’t trusted when you went home?”

A woman with short spiky dark hair and a missing arm leans forward. “They put me in the fucking garage. My own husband and kids. They said they needed to observe me before they’d let me out. Like I was some rabid dog.”

“Mine’s a doozy,” says a man with a Florida State t-shirt. His arms are crisscrossed with scars. “I got home and found my girlfriend had changed the locks. Oh, and she was also dating my best friend. He claimed he had kept her safe when I was sick. Like it was my fault. They wouldn’t even let me in the apartment to get my stuff.”

Everyone’s suddenly clamoring, talking over each other to tell their own stories, but I keep my mouth shut. It seems like a betrayal of Carter to complain about him, even though I’m tempted to chime in with my own grievances. I wrap my hand in my sweater.

A hush comes over the circle as Harold speaks. He taps his knees with his index fingers with each word. “Each. Of. Us. Has. The. Same. Story.” He jerks his head toward the outside of the tent. “No matter what color or religion, age or ability, we’re not trusted out there.”
 I raise my hand. “At the reintegration center, they said to give it time. ‘Wounds can’t heal overnight,’ they said.”

“Some never heal.” Harold’s gaze is unblinking, solemn.

I nod and wrap my arms around my ribs.

He continues. “We were victimized, too. Which is why trust is so important at the Revival. Trust means relying on one another, always being there for one another, in health and sickness.”

The Florida State guy is leaning forward, his eyes gleaming with hope at Harold’s vision of a ready-made family, no conflicts or problems.

“Trust takes time to build.” I venture. It seems like an even bigger jump of faith to trust a community of strangers.
Harold’s veneer of benevolence doesn’t crack. “It’s facing up to the reality of a world that thinks we’re beyond repair.”

The woman with short hair is glaring at me, and the Florida State guy is staring at me with pitying look. Harold signals to assistants who have been waiting at the edges of the tent. They walk toward the circle, handing each of us a clipboard with a form.

The heading says “TRUST CONTRACT.” Underneath, it outlines the rules of the camp: no contact with Survivors, even family and friends; half of any income we earn will go to the Revival, which will pay our taxes and provide us with unlimited En-Liven.

“Now, I don’t expect you to sign this right now. Take it back to your tent and think it over. You’ll have one week to decide,” he says. But most of the people in the circle are already signing their names at the bottom, trying to prove they’re happy campers. His eyes flick toward me. “Sometimes, it’s hard for people to see the big picture.”

That night, when Myra and I are inside her tiny two-person tent, I ask her about the contract.

She zips up her sleeping bag. “You signed it, right? It’s kind of lame not to sign as soon as Father Harold gives it to you.”

“Guess I’m a loser, then.”

“Oh, Edda.”

“Don’t tell me you buy his garbage about creating a new family. It’s Cult 101.”

Myra’s silent for a moment. She closes her eyes and the lines from her forehead are erased. “Weren’t you the one who told me we have to believe in something?”

Soon her breathing slows. I listen to the hoots from a party somewhere in the encampment. A new family—maybe this is the only way to make sense of what happened.

The next few days pass in a swirl of En-Liven and camp work. I help Myra dig latrines on the camp’s outskirts—the one time I can remember feeling thankful we have no sense of smell—and walk around Woodstock, picking up garbage. At night we slug En-Liven and tell stories about the rehab centers. I learn Myra and I were lucky—some of the centers were little more than holding pens.

On my seventh day at the camp, Myra and I join a crew driving to Poughkeepsie to buy a new shipment of En-Liven. In the parking lot, Father Harold holds the keys to the vehicles, three pick-up trucks and two minivans, and Myra and I call dibs on one of the suburban monsters, a tan Odyssey.

As I climb into the passenger seat, Father Harold sidles up to me.

“If you don’t sign the contract today, you’ll have to leave in the morning.”

“Not contacting Survivors? Ever?”

His eyes harden. “Most of them want us dead. We’re better off on our own.”

Myra pulls away and we sit in silence until we pull up at the beverage warehouse.

Two beefy men and a woman in Carhartt pants stand quietly as we pull inside. Survivors. They are the embodiment of three meals a day—veg, fruit, and meat. The Revived are like another race, thin flesh riding on our skeletons.

As soon as we pop the back hatch, the men start loading cases of En-Liven. They work with an economy of motion, moving the cases quickly and efficiently with muscular strength.

“Which one of you can come and sign off on the paperwork?” The woman waves a clipboard in the air. Myra shoves me forward and I follow the woman into her office.

Her computer monitor cycles through family photos. A man at a dock, an older couple on a boat. Everyone smiling and squinting into the sun.

As I sign the paperwork, she stares at the screen. “You’re lucky, you know.”

“How do you figure that?” I flip through the pages, looking for the places where a signature is needed.

“None of you remember what happened.” Her hands tremble as I hand the clipboard back to her.

The photos are flipping to Christmas scenes: kids under the tree, a dog in the snow. I swallow.

“I’m sorry.”

As I leave the office, she turns back to her computer, her hands motionless on her computer keyboard.

Throughout the day, the hardness I’ve felt toward Carter softens. I’m not sure the lady in the warehouse was right to call me lucky, but the Survivors certainly aren’t either.

The next morning, before Myra wakes, I leave a note for her on the contract.

If you decide to leave the Revival, you’ll always have a home with me.” I jot down my home phone number, pack my bag, and head for the bus station.

* * *

The unfriendly neighbor is sitting outside her Victorian house, pulling on a cigarette. She’s wearing a tie-dyed shirt with red stars on a field of orange waves.

“You lot didn’t deserve to get cured,” she mutters.

“If only I had gotten my hands on you before I was Revived—” I lick my lips.

Her mouth opens in surprise, then shuts again. She narrows her eyes. The rumble starts in her chest and expands into her belly, until she’s leaning back in the chair, head tilted and stomach trembling in delight.

“Now you’re fucking with me,” she says, wiping her eyes. “I can respect that.”

I hoist my backpack and keep walking.

“Hey, what’s your name?” she calls after me.

“Edda,” I say.

“I’m Barb. You’re the first to come back to the block.”

I turn around. She points her cigarette at my hand. “Got banged up in the fight, eh? Oh, I’ve seen worse. Hell, back when the virus was raging, I done worse to you lot.”

A flush creeps over my skin, but she’s just stating a fact. Not threatening me. “It must have been terrible.”

She nods, taking a long drag on her cigarette. “Now, my Harold, that’s who I’m waiting for. I sit out here from dawn to dusk, in case he comes back. He got out of a facility three months ago. You didn’t happen to meet him, did you? Little man, with hair like a white Brillo pad, missing a nose and ears.”

I open my mouth, but hesitate.

“Yeah? You seen him? He called me when he was discharged and said he was heading for the Revival. Haven’t heard from him since. Makes me wish I had done him in when I had the chance.” There’s a hint of affection in her voice.

I shift my feet. “I wouldn’t count on him coming back.”

She exhales a long plume of smoke. “Asshole before the virus. Asshole after.”

“My fiancé left when he heard I was getting out of the facility. He said he couldn’t face me.”

“Coming back takes balls.” Barb opens up the cooler at her feet and hands me an En-Liven. “Been keeping these for Harold, but why waste them on him?”

I wrap my wounded hand around the can, two fingers and thumb, an uncertain grip. I pop the tab and take a long drink. It tastes like nothing. It tastes like everything.

When I’m done, I reach for another.


Host Commentary

About this story, the author says “I wrote this story after I had been a first reader at Clarkesworld, which famously doesn’t accept zombie stories and which, therefore, gave me an itch to write my own zombie story. When watching zombie shows, I always wondered what would happen if a cure for zombies was developed, and how a society would or even could heal from such a trauma. Since I wrote this story, our society has been grappling with even deeper divisions and conflicts, including a pandemic which has worsened many of those problems. Trauma can be an isolating experience, but I have hope that some form of healing is still in our future.”

Escape Pod, being the science fiction wing of Escape Artists, usually leaves the zombie stories to Pseudopod, our horror sibling, but we enjoy Halloween as much as the next magazine, and this one straddled the genres at just the right spot.

I’ve always felt sorry for zombies; vampires have a similar horror problem, but they’re depicted as sexy, while the zombies are unthinking devouring death, our own loved ones seen through a grotesque lens being the scariest thing of all.

The thing that creeps me out about this story is the cult. When people are hurt and weakened, you can bet there will be someone charismatic who will stand up to try to take advantage of this situation. A malicious helping hand is more dangerous than full animosity, because you don’t see the danger until it’s too late. I fully believe that there’s another group of Survivors, refusing to let in the revived and building their own Us vs Them cult, and one day they will clash with Father Harold and his followers.

When a loved one dies, the bargaining stage of grief tells us that we’ll do anything to bring them back, but in this kind of story, it’s all too believable that we would want them back only under certain circumstances. This story feels like a monkey’s paw of anyone who wishes a zombie plague would just be over already.

That was our show for this week. We leave you with the words of Charles Dickens, “Perhaps the mourners learn to look to the blue sky by day, and to the stars by night, and to think that the dead are there, and not in graves”

Thanks for listening. We will see you next week when we bring you the first part of Meg Elison’s The Pill.

About the Author

Aimee Picchi

Aimee Picchi

Aimee Picchi is a journalist by day and science fiction and fantasy writer by night. Her short fiction has been published in Apex, Podcastle, Flash Fiction Online, and Daily Science Fiction, among other fine publications. In 2021, she was a finalist for the Nebula Award for short stories. She lives in Burlington, Vermont with her family.

Find more by Aimee Picchi

Aimee Picchi
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About the Narrator

Ibba Armancas

Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at https://www.pandemicplayhouse.tv.

Find more by Ibba Armancas

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