The Self-Made Man

FIFTH RUNNER-UP IN THE 2021 GREAT AMERICAN FICTION CONTEST: Nothing was more welcome in Bluesville than a distraction, but this carnival was unlike any the town had seen before.

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There was nothing so welcome in the town of Blueville as a distraction. You could hold your breath in the time it took to drive through the main part of town; there was barely a post office, restaurant, and single-screen theater. They had gotten Lawrence of Arabia the previous month and continued to show it twice a day, to diminishing returns. The regional high school was too far away for football games, and as the restless summer tumbled into fall, the residents of Blueville clamored hungrily for something to do.

Laurie Bellstriker walked through town on her way home from school, her best friend Bonnie Shield, as always, at her side. The youngest in her class, Laurie had just turned thirteen, which brought her to the precipice of being almost too cool for Blueville, and nostalgic for the memories of a childhood that she was sure were uniquely closer and clearer to her than anyone else of her acquaintance.

Bonnie pointed to a cluster of people spilling out from the post office. “What is going on? Do you think it has something to do with Ms. Baxter?”

“I don’t know,” Laurie said, frowning.

“Hey, can you still see my lipstick?”

Laurie looked over. Bonnie had taken to putting it on before school and taking it off before coming back home. “No, you got it all.”

Laurie could hear her father’s voice as they approached the crowd; Sheriff Bellstriker was in the center of the knot of people, motioning to a row of large, dark posters that were tacked up all over the front windows. He waved both girls over to see. “The carnival is coming back through town,” he said. The neighbors around them continued to gossip to each other: about the carnival’s arrival so late in the year — rude, about Laurie’s baby brother — accompanied by advice, and about some commotion up at the school — where multiple accounts were given with competing confidence in their authenticity.

“The carnival is back?” Bonnie asked, her ponytail swishing as she gazed at the poster. “I don’t remember the last time it was here.”

The sheriff looked thoughtful. “It must have been five years, maybe more. You both were just a little too young last time.” He started to walk with them as they continued through town after a cheerful goodbye to their neighbors. “How was school?”

Laurie twisted the hem of her sweater. “Ms. Baxter died today,” she said after a moment.

“The chorus teacher? Oh, that’s a shame. I know she really liked you two.” They walked in silence for the next block. The young, pretty teacher had been a favorite of theirs; it was one of the few things Laurie had been dreading about moving up to the regional high school.

“They said it was cardiac arrest,” Bonnie continued, in the town’s grand tradition of relentless gossiping. “Her heart just stopped working.”

Laurie elbowed her, glancing for a moment back up at her father.

“Hopefully, the carnival will be a good distraction for the other kids,” Sheriff Bellstriker said. “We can go on Friday, if you feel up to it.”

The weekend saw what must have been the entirety of Blueville descending upon the old fairgrounds with eagerness and anticipation. Laurie met Bonnie at the entrance. She was keen to get away from her father; something must have happened, as he’d been sour all day.

Music, lilting in a way that was both spirited and strangely somber in turns, flowed out across the fields. An enormous sign with hand-painted letters spelled out Barometz and Fulcrum’s Traveling Carnival and Automaton Theatre.

A man in suspenders stood out front, calling to people as they passed by. “Welcome to the show!” He tipped his hat as the girls walked up. “Mr. Fulcrum, at your service.”

Laurie could see the carnival rising behind him. Colorful tents had lights strung from their tops like gleaming fireflies. The air smelled like spun sugar. “This is your carnival?” she said.

His smile was also gleaming. “Yes, it is,” he answered, bowing graciously. “I do hope you both enjoy the show.”

He swept them inside with a slight wave of his arm. Bonnie led the way past a noisy, crowded arcade and into the nearest tent. It was much more subdued inside, and while not altogether devoid of people, instead the spacious tent was filled with glass-fronted cabinets and shelves practically groaning with treasures.

“This isn’t like any carnival I’ve ever heard of,” Laurie whispered. Bonnie nodded, although her attention was immediately drawn to the weathered skull of an animal with long, curving teeth.

“Then that is quite the compliment!” Another smartly dressed man, who could have been a brother to the first, emerged like a shadow from a dark corner of the tent. “We are much more than just a show. These are wonder-rooms of the highest order! Allow me to be your guide.”

He introduced himself as Barometz and led them around the pavilion. Laurie gaped at a massive chunk of amber lit from above, the preserved insect inside casting shadows onto the fabric walls of the tent. Alongside it was a display of vivid, delicate butterflies and an enormous mottled egg under glass, displayed as if it were a jewel.

“What about that one?” Bonnie asked, pointing to the skull.

“Ah! You’re curious about the Smilodon. A cat with teeth like double-edged knives. This creature was a consummate predator, as I’m sure you can see. Go on, go on! Have a good look. If this animal were alive today, you wouldn’t be able to get this close.” He clucked his tongue and turned to the next case. A cabinet of bones — claws and horns, antlers and tusks — ran the full height of the room.

“There are a lot of dangerous animals in here,” Laurie said, frowning a little at the pointed, wicked claws. It was all too easy to imagine the rest of the animal — the fur, and the teeth, and the growl, and the roar.

Barometz looked affronted. “This, my dear, is a theater of memory itself! We merely seek to reflect the world as we see it. You look at these predators and see something dangerous. I see a creature following the script that nature has written for it. Just look at those teeth. It has no other choice but to hunt.”

Laurie leaned in closer until her breath fogged the glass. Bonnie elbowed her, whispering, “Nobody would care if it were just a bunch of moldy old junk. Just think of the flea market — all those antique things and rusty machines — ”

“Rusty machines?” Barometz appeared to be eavesdropping. “And what are animals but machines of flesh?” He straightened his suspenders, whispering conspiratorially in turn, “But if you want to see machines, then you won’t want to miss the show tonight. I’d hurry along. It always starts on time.”

They left the tent with its rows of treasures and stepped back into the noisy confluence of the carnival. Sheriff Bellstriker found them not long after. He looked like he’d been searching for them. “You should tell me before you go wandering off,” he said.

“Dad, you don’t need to be so worried,” Laurie said, shrugging. She thought about telling him about the cases of relics in the other tent, but then remembered the pointed teeth and thought better of it. All around them, the crowds seemed to be drifting toward another tent, this one located in the back of the fairgrounds.

Sheriff Bellstriker was always cautious, but now he looked unusually so. “I’ve been on edge all day,” he admitted as the crowd swept them along. “Can I trust you girls with a secret?”

They looked at each other, then back to him and nodded.

“Ms. Baxter’s body went missing from the funeral home yesterday.”

They both started talking at once. “What do you mean, missing?” Bonnie asked.

“Poor Ms. Baxter,” Laurie whispered.

“Do you have any suspects?”

“How are you going to find her?”

“Nothing like this has ever happened here,” the sheriff said, not really answering any of their questions. “Please, just stay out of trouble.”

They joined what felt like the rest of Blueville underneath the vast, round tent, finding seats near the front. The lights dimmed to a single spotlight. The barker from the front of the carnival stepped into the light. When the audience applauded, he tipped his hat to them again.

“Old friends and new,” Fulcrum began. “It’s always a pleasure to return to such a wonderful place. I’ve gotten to meet many of you this evening, and one of the questions I’ve heard the most is: just what is an automaton? Please, allow me to demonstrate.”

He gave another gracious wave of his hand and a second spotlight flickered on, this one focused on a single, still figure. Then a third and a fourth light emerged, each with a humanoid shape at its center. For a moment, the tableau remained perfectly unmoving. The audience watched, just as hushed though not nearly as still.

It was as if they all took a collective breath. They moved together, a slight clicking sound like the movement of gears or an unwinding reel of magnetic tape at first the only sound. Laurie realized, gazing at each figure’s spot-lit shadow, that each carried an instrument. As one, they began to play.

The music came in like a whisper and gradually began to grow. Laurie looked from one pool of light to the next, entranced by each mechanical player. The music, to her, sounded like a conversation, with each of them taking their turn to speak in the only way that they could. First came the flute, breathy and soft. One figure, a woman, sat at a piano, her back to the stage. Her arms bent gently at the elbow as she began to add to the melody. Next came the fiddle, and finally a low, resonant cello. The players took turns before coming together in a round, one melody chasing after the next.

Laurie sighed happily, watching the perfection of it. The movements were precise, methodical, and the music so lyrical it was hard to believe it came from a machine. She studied the figures further. They looked just human enough to be familiar, but peculiar, somehow. Like they had gone beyond.

She looked again at the second automaton, sitting before the piano. There was something about it that brought a strong memory to the front of her mind. She had seen something similar nearly every day, in school. Ms. Baxter looked just like that, seated at the piano.

But no. It couldn’t be. It was simply her mind playing tricks on her, searching for some way to make sense of the abrupt separation. Laurie twisted a little, trying to see the woman’s face, but her back was to the crowd. She closed her eyes, just listening to the music.

 

It was storming again. Laurie had always liked storms. She was born in the middle of a storm, her parents always said. It was one of those stories that got repeated often enough it had almost become something of a memory itself. The sound of thunder always soothed her.

It seemed to be just the opposite with her baby brother. There was no end in sight to his wailing. It began anew with every peal of the storm, and with each cry her parents only fussed over him more. That night it was her mother; the sheriff had yet to come back from town. “He’s only doing what he knows how to do,” her mother had said. “Don’t worry. He will get more interesting in time. You were like this once, too.”

Laurie doubted it.

When his cries stretched late into the evening, Laurie snuck outside. The storm clouds had yet to follow through on their threats of rain, still filling the air with static anticipation. The grass scratched at her legs as she wound a familiar path to her neighbor’s house. Bonnie’s room faced away from the street, and when Laurie crept up to the window and gave the usual pattern of knocks, Bonnie slid open the sash a minute later.

“What’s the matter? Can’t sleep?” she asked, yawning, and folded her arms over the ledge.

Laurie nodded. She sat down on the ground and began pulling out weeds. “Storm’s coming,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah.” Bonnie shook her head. “Hey, do you want to see something cool?”

Laurie nodded. Bonnie disappeared for a few minutes before reappearing at the window. “My mom holds on to everything, you know,” she said, holding up an age-worn newspaper. “But I found these piled up in the laundry room. Check this out,” and she tossed it over the ledge.

Laurie unfolded the paper. The Blueville Gazette hadn’t changed their logo in five years. A grainy photograph of the familiar fairgrounds took up most of the page; the article underneath, Laurie quickly skimmed. “Barometz and Wormianum Traveling Carnival and Automaton Theatre?” Her voice rose in pitch with the question. “What about the ringleader now? Mr. … what was it? Fulcrum?”

“That’s what I thought,” Bonnie said. “He said during the show that he was here before, so why isn’t he in the picture? There’s just some old man with glasses. It says in the article that man was famous for creating the original circus automatons.”

“Imagine getting to be a part of the carnival,” Laurie said, sighing dreamily. She pulled up a few dandelions from the ground and began to absentmindedly weave the stems together. “I’d love to get to travel like that.”

“Where do they sleep?” Bonnie made a face. “Where do they shower? We saw that tent with the old bones. So dusty. They need to create a machine that cleans things.”

“If they weren’t dusty, nobody would think they were very old,” Laurie said.

“So you don’t think any of it is real?”

“Come on. Most of it has to be fake. Saber-toothed tigers in Blueville? Shouldn’t they be somewhere more important? I don’t think even Raleigh got Barnum and Bailey, and that was real animals.”

Laurie wound the dandelion-chain into a loop before tossing it through the open window. Bonnie slid the bracelet around her wrist and gave her hand a gentle shake. “There’s one way to find out for sure,” she said. A familiar, mischievous grin was starting to spread across her face. “Do we want to see for ourselves?”

 

The fairgrounds weren’t far from town. They crept through the grass which grew unchecked beyond the clustered tents, whispering to each other. She wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Laurie felt stupid. What were they going to find — Barometz gluing horns to horses? All the same, she couldn’t get the musicians out of her mind. She wanted, selfishly, to see them again.

The occasional light still glowed among the tents; for as far as they could see, the pair were alone. The wind had only gotten stronger as they made their way into the pavilion, and Laurie was glad to duck underneath the fastened flap of a tent and into the shadowed collection within.

“See?” Bonnie muttered. “Dusty.” She ran a finger along one wooden ledge.

Laurie quickly realized they were standing in the backstage area of the Automaton Theatre. Several of the figures appeared to be in various states of repair, their arms askew, while others stood silent and perfectly still. Laurie resisted the urge to reach out to the closest one. She could see where his hands gripped the bow of a glossy violin, fingertips frozen in place. Her own fingertips twitched at the thought of countless gears and motors beneath the surface.

She looked over to see what Bonnie thought. Her friend’s face was inches from the next machine, staring into its lifeless, unblinking eyes. “What if they all started moving at once? Like, gotcha! You fell for it!”

“Shh!” Laurie hissed. “I hear something.”

They crouched down for a moment, hiding behind the still figures before inching forward, heading carefully toward the noise. It wasn’t footsteps — not the echo of feet inside the vast tent but a repetitive, metallic grinding. They peered around the edge of one automaton before moving closer.

The sound reminded Laurie of the chain on a bicycle.

Bonnie elbowed her in the side. Do you see that? she mouthed, nodding toward the stage.

She nodded.

The noise was coming from an automaton seated at a piano.

Laurie waited, listening, for another minute before advancing to the stage. The sound whirred on, like a relentless, mechanical cough. She approached the seated figure, again struck by the resemblance to her teacher. Laurie could almost imagine she was back in that classroom, that they all were about to create music, together. She felt her throat tighten, fought the rush of tears. Before Bonnie could see, she quickly swiped a hand across her face. Grief was making her see things.

She paced around to stand beside the piano, trying to pinpoint the source of the noise. She could hear the soft creak of footsteps as Bonnie joined her on the stage. When she motioned toward the automaton, Laurie could only shrug helplessly.

Suddenly, heavy, brisk footsteps cut over the mechanical catching. Laurie and Bonnie looked at each other, then across the expansive stage before ducking around to the tall side of the upright piano.

The footsteps came closer, ascended the stage. With them came a man’s voice, low and echoing. “Problems adjusting?” Fulcrum sounded sincere, if a little paternalistic. “It’s always the case with new additions to our merry band. Don’t worry,” he continued, easing himself down onto the bench alongside her, “I’m sure whatever is bothering you, I can fix it.”

He spoke to the figure as if she could answer back.

On the other side of the piano, Laurie could feel the slats of the wood flush against her back. She heard Fulcrum working busily on something she could not see. The bike-chain spluttering faded before starting again, louder than before.

A second voice cut through the noise. Barometz came briefly into the tent, calling, “What’s that racket?”

Fulcrum sighed. “Just the Baxter woman,” he answered. “Hollering to beat the storm.”

“You worry too much about them. Well, when you’re done here, there’s work to do outside.”

There was a sharp jolt of metal, and the bike-chain clicking abruptly stopped. Fulcrum stood up, satisfied, brushing dust from his hands. His footsteps soon faded into nothing.

They waited there, neither scarcely willing to move, in the center of the stage. When Laurie turned to look at Bonnie, her best friend was already staring back at her. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out. Is … that … Ms. Baxter?

Laurie slowly nodded.

“What do we do?” Bonnie hissed.

“We get my dad,” Laurie said. “Come on. We can’t stay here.”

As they tiptoed off the stage, Laurie noticed Fulcrum had left something behind on the piano bench, a wrench with an unusual, sculpted tip. It looked one-of-a-kind. On instinct, she picked it up.

“I don’t understand,” Bonnie continued to whisper as they wound their way through the other still figures. “Why would they do something like that?”

“I don’t know,” Laurie said, even as she thought of her baby brother, and of the sharp claws and teeth in the glass-fronted displays. What was it the curator told them? Nature wrote a script for animals to follow. The words weren’t much different than what her mother had said when her brother couldn’t stop crying.

A sudden clap of thunder, like the joining together of two cosmic palms, caused them both instinctively to duck. Thrown off guard, Laurie lurched sideways and collided into one of the automatons. She reached out with her free hand, attempted to right herself, and in the process her fingers scraped against something like a lever.

It began to move.

Laurie stumbled backward as the figure lifted a violin, nocked it against their chin, and raised a bow to the strings.

Though the music was ostensibly similar to what she heard at the theatre before, without the rest of the band to accompany them, the music that wound through the theatre was bizarre, half-formed, as if it were missing an integral piece of itself. Laurie continued to back away, clutching the wrench to her body.

“What are you doing in here?”

Fulcrum appeared in the opposite end of the theatre. His initially inquisitive expression grew darker when he saw the tool in Laurie’s clenched fist. “You can’t have that,” he said, drawing closer to them. “Give that back and I promise there won’t be trouble.”

Bonnie and Laurie had been friends for most of their lives; they could communicate a word in a gesture, a conversation in a look. They looked at each other and ran from the tent.

Laurie could hear him shouting at their backs before they ducked outside, and the sounds of the storm swallowed it up. They continued to run, legs and arms pumping. Laurie clutched the wrench like a baton in her fist.

“We can make it to my dad,” she gasped as they sprinted away from the fairgrounds. They rounded the corner of Church Street, passing the church for which it was named, and continued toward town. Their sneakers slapped against the pavement. Laurie dared to look behind her but couldn’t make out anything in the darkness.

The center of Blueville loomed out at them, the dim storefronts’ familiar shapes taking on a more sinister air in the brewing storm. No one was around and no lights were on save those in one building — the sheriff’s office, lit like a beacon in the middle of town.

They arrived, wind-beaten and out of breath, and threw open the front door before bolting inside.

“Dad!” Laurie shouted.

Sheriff Bellstriker, who had been sitting wearily at his desk, looked up with alarm when they came running inside. “What happened?” he asked, rising at once to his feet.

“We found her! Ms. Baxter … we found her.” Laurie struggled to catch her breath. “The carnival took her.”

From the sheriff’s immediate change in expression, his first assumption had been that there was an emergency at home. He collected himself, reached out, touched Laurie’s shoulder. “Slow down,” he said. “The carnival took her?”

“We saw her! You have to believe us,” Laurie pleaded.

He looked like he was about to say something before changing his mind. After another false start, he continued, “Of course I believe you. But you both need to calm down.” He glanced out of the window, began to shrug on his jacket. “Where did you find her — was she buried somewhere in the fairgrounds, or inside the caravan, or … ?”

He waited for their response. “She’s in the theatre,” Bonnie finally said. “They did something to her. And then he saw us and said there would be trouble.”

“Who said that?”

“The circus man.” Laurie’s voice was higher now. She looked out the window, seeing a faintly bobbing light in the darkness — a swinging lantern, held shoulder-high. “He threatened us. He was following us. That might be him outside right now.”

The sheriff looked like he’d heard enough. “Both of you, there is a private office in the back. Go through that door, then to the end of the hallway. I will come get you. Please stay quiet.”

They scrambled away through the door behind him scarcely a moment before the front door opened again. The tall, lean form of Fulcrum entered the precinct. The sheriff watched him adjust his windblown hair and straighten his suspenders before even acknowledging him. Fulcrum walked up to the desk and placed his lantern upon it.

“Good evening, sheriff.” The words came as casually as if he were taking a simple evening stroll. He didn’t appear winded at all.

“You shouldn’t be outside in this weather. It isn’t safe.” Bellstriker remained standing, guarding the door behind him like a dragon. “What can I do for you?”

“I would like to make a report,” Fulcrum said, and allowed himself an entreating smile. “Two people recently broke into my carnival. Something was stolen from me. A … most necessary piece of equipment. I require it to be returned to me.”

“Let me get the paperwork,” Bellstriker said, moving with deliberate slowness to a cabinet drawer before retrieving a sheaf of papers. “Can you describe the item taken, or the intruders?”

“A custom bit of tackle, defying description, I’m afraid,” he replied. “But the culprits are two young girls. I never forget a face, sheriff, and I hate to say that one was your daughter.”

When Bellstriker put the pages down on his desk, Fulcrum adjusted the burning lantern, lifting it onto the stack of paper. “Are you certain?” Bellstriker asked. “That’s unlike her.”

“Like I said,” he replied, gesturing decorously with his free hand.

“If that is true, then I will talk to her in the morning. As for your theft, I’ll see what I can do. There is a more pressing matter, a missing woman, so I can’t give it my priority — ”

At that, Fulcrum lifted the lantern again and slammed it back down onto the desk with a heavy, metallic thud. The flame inside sputtered violently. All pretensions of hospitality vanished; he looked visibly and vehemently angry. “I must have it back. I require it.”

Bellstriker didn’t move. “Like you said.”

When Fulcrum left, Bellstriker waited until his light vanished around the corner before letting his shoulders sag even an inch. He let out a long, slow breath. “Girls?” he called, turning to the door. He opened it, ducked his head inside the hallway.

When there was no answer, he continued down the hallway towards the office. His pace quickened.

“Laurie?”

He found her slumped on the floor. He ran to her side, crouched down, gently tried to rouse her. She was alone.

She came to after a moment. He helped her sit up.

“What happened?”

“He took Bonnie.” She swayed unsteadily at first, but saying her friend’s name seemed to stabilize her.

“No, Fulcrum was with me the whole time. He couldn’t have done it.”

“Not him,” Laurie said. “The other one.”

He shook his head. “Why?”

Laurie pointed to the room’s trash can, where she’d impulsively hidden the bizarre implement. Her father pulled it from the trash and studied it, looking just as confused as she felt.

“Because of that.”

 

It began to rain as they arrived at the fairgrounds. The pennants above each tent shook wildly in the enveloping storm like so many hands, waving or warning. On the way, Laurie told her dad about the theatre and what they had seen. She was afraid for Bonnie. She was sure they would do to her what they did to their teacher. Perhaps, Laurie reasoned, they needed the wrench to finish the job. Maybe that was why Fulcrum was so angry when he realized she had it.

They stood in the center of the carnival, surrounded by tents and flickering lights. Bellstriker paused, looking all around. “They can’t have gone far,” he said. A crackling arm of lightning reached down across the horizon, followed closely by growling thunder.

“Look.” Laurie reached down and picked up a circle of woven dandelion stems. “Bonnie had this. She’s somewhere nearby.” Laurie instinctively slid it over her wrist.

The bracelet had been left near the theatre, and as they began to move toward it the curtained doors parted, and Fulcrum emerged. Somehow, his hat stayed perfectly placed even in the enveloping storm.

“Sheriff,” he said, extending both arms in another gracious, elegant gesture. “Did you find what I was looking for?”

He saw Laurie, standing in her father’s shadow, and his smile thinned.

“We’re looking for something, too,” Bellstriker answered. “I wonder if we can help each other.”

“Dad, no!” Laurie protested. “You can’t give it to him!”

Bellstriker held out the strange tool, pointed it right at Fulcrum. “Has Bonnie Shield been harmed in any way?”

Fulcrum’s eyes flickered to the wrench. “I can assure you she hasn’t.”

“But you can’t say the same thing about Ms. Baxter.”

Dark clouds practically blanketed the fairgrounds. Fulcrum said nothing, merely smiled. He took a step forward, then another, until he stood almost in the center of the clearing. “I must have it back,” he said again with strong, quiet resolve. “There is no moving on from here without it.”

Bellstriker held out the twisted metal tool. Fulcrum reached for it, wrapped his fingers around the handle.

Laurie looked back and forth between them, wordlessly begging her father to change his mind, when an enormous branching flash of lightning, like the very hand of God, tore through the sky above the carnival. It seemed to seek out Fulcrum, struck him with a clangorous, echoing blast which quickly became subsumed by the ensuing thunder. The hand grasping the wrench clenched until it couldn’t grip any tighter. Fulcrum gasped, fell, his body locked into an unnatural contortion. The bike-chain sputtering abruptly began once more.

Sheriff Bellstriker dove to the ground at the first glimpse of lightning; Laurie ran without looking back into the tent. If she had, she would have seen Fulcrum’s eyes — wide, eerily unblinking for all they looked inward, and filled with resigned understanding just as paralyzing as any storm. He lay on the ground, unmoving, his only sound the persistent mechanical rumbling.

Inside she found Bonnie on the stage. All around them the storm continued, unrelenting. The lights flickered on, nearly burning in their intensity, and then she began to hear other sounds within the theatre. Not the ticking of mechanical heartbeats, or the refrains of music. It was a chorus of strange, blossoming cries, the sound impossibly familiar to her. It was how her brother cried whenever there was a storm.

Featured image: kisto /Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Ms. Slee, I found your supernatural story to be very engrossing and captivating, really liking your writing style as well. Before I even realized it, it was over. It’s up to you, but I’d love it if there was a sequel in the works!

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