A Harmony Ink Press Title
Steven's life changes forever the day he discovers his childhood friend and lifelong crush, Ryan Walters, standing in his bedroom. The problem? Ryan Walters committed suicide just days earlier.
Ryan tells Steven that he didn't kill himself. He believes he was murdered and that his death is linked to an article he was working on for the school paper. Steven sets out to solve the mystery, but as the story unfolds, so does Ryan's secret life of sex with guys and depression. Steven realizes suicide is more plausible than Ryan's conspiracy theory, but he struggles to convince Ryan of the real cause of his death. And despite revelations of his friend's closeted life, he must face the truth that Ryan doesn't—and never will—love him.
I STOOD in a line of blazers and skirts.
There wasn’t as much black as I’d expected. Bland, disgusting colors, but not morbid.
Dark blue. Peach. Salmon.
This was the first viewing I’d ever been to. There hadn’t been many deaths in my family, and Mom did her best to avoid dead people. She hadn’t even gone to my grandmother’s or uncle’s funerals. Too depressing, she’d said.
“Lynda’s such a survivor,” said a brunette with hips that stretched the waist of the beige skirt she wore.
She stood in front of me, beside Miss Greer, a trig teacher at my school.
“She’s doing better than she was yesterday.” Miss Greer didn’t know me, but I knew her. She was my bestie Lindsey’s teacher. Lindsey constantly complained that Miss Greer’s lessons were just overhead presentations that she’d copied from the textbook. Lindsey, who was used to getting by with her natural ability to pick up the material without having to take notes or study, had gotten Ds on Miss Greer’s past two tests. Having a teacher who cared little about explaining information to her students was new to Lindsey, and she was going to have to do some work to overcome it.
“I just can’t believe he was that unhappy,” Miss Greer continued. “And sleeping pills?”
“If I did something like that,” the brunette said, “I would at least do it somewhere my mother wouldn’t have to find me. I can’t even imagine.”
How can they be talking about it like this?
Although I wasn’t sure how they should have been talking about it.
“And you know her sister isn’t going to be here,” Miss Greer added, her arms folded. She shook her head.
“She said she had to work. She wasn’t able to make it to Lynda’s husband’s funeral, either. Very convenient.”
“Oh, I just can’t stand people like that.”
I wonder what they’d think about Mom?
A fit of giggles came from behind me. It was some girls from school. I didn’t turn around. I didn’t want to know why they thought it was okay to giggle at this.
Didn’t they know why we were there? Ryan Walters was dead.
I knew that fact, but it wasn’t real. It couldn’t have been. I’d seen him just three days earlier.
We’d stopped by Starbucks and ordered the usual. I had a regular coffee with a dozen packs of cream and enough sugar to give the coffee a syrupy consistency. Ryan had a cinnamon latte—no whip, skim milk—and a blueberry muffin. He’d started eating blueberry muffins every time we went to Starbucks. Sometimes he’d get a brownie too. He’d been working on losing weight and talked on and on about diet and exercise, but I rarely saw him working out and more often than not saw him eating.
But he was smiling.
After Starbucks, we’d slipped into the adjoining bookstore.
Ryan had trailed his finger across a page in a Harlequin romance and chased me through the aisles, forcing me to endure an endless stream of euphemisms and descriptions of longing gazes. A big grin stretched across his face. His blue eyes sparkled. Was that what a person who’d killed himself looked like just days before he decided to do it?
That was all I could ask. He had such a great life. He had a hot girlfriend—Ellie, who got all the lead roles in the school plays. She was Anastasia, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina. He had tons of friends. Well, he had tons of Facebook friends. I didn’t know how 3,400 Facebook friends translated into real friends, but I knew a few of the real ones, and they always seemed to have a good time. Or from what Ryan had said, I gathered they had a pretty good time. He had great grades. AP track. On the honor roll. He’d been on the football team, placing him in the stereotypical top of the social hierarchy. And he’d just received a full scholarship to Emory University. What did he have to be sad about?
It wasn’t that his life was perfect. I remembered when his dad had passed. That was terrible, and I remembered how much it affected him, but surely not enough to make him take his own life so many years later.
It couldn’t have been that. Something had to have happened recently—something that had thrown him into a rapid downward spiral. Or was I wrong? Was he always unhappy? Had he done things—said things—that I should have noticed? Surely, he’d said something. I just needed to keep replaying our conversations over and over again in my mind. I needed to keep reliving those moments until I remembered a cry for help.
One moment kept spiraling through my thoughts. After the bookstore we’d gone back to my house.
He’d sat in the swivel chair at my desk, fidgeting with a pencil beside my laptop. I figured he was having problems with Ellie or something in school. He wouldn’t look at me. Just stared at the pencil. I wondered if he noticed the bite marks along the side. He stuttered over some of his words, but he ended up laughing it off and asking about the stack of incomplete job applications beside my laptop.
It’d been such an insignificant thing at the time. The stutter. The agitated look. Now, it consumed my thoughts.
Had he been about to reach out for help? Was that the only sign I got? One moment that hadn’t seemed all that significant? I figured that someone who was going to kill themselves would have more red flags. There had to be other moments. I just had to keep reflecting on the past few weeks.
I’d thought it would be hard to think about him, but it wasn’t. He didn’t feel dead. I hadn’t seen a body. I’d only seen the news on Facebook. For all intents and purposes, this was just like all those years between elementary school and high school where we hadn’t spoken.
He was just gone for a little while. He’d be back. Just like before. Right?
The line wound back through the double doors that led out into the orange glow from a streetlamp outside. The place was packed with my peers and teachers—some I’d known most of my life, some I didn’t know at all.
She’s so late.
The universe seemed to conspire against Lindsey, making her chronically late to anything and everything—constantly sending her to detention for making it to first period thirty minutes after the bell had rung. I’d been present when the universe seemed to pit stop lights and emergency errands against her. However, it was hard for me to believe she was physically incapable of being somewhere on time. God knew how she managed to keep her job. Maybe it was a good thing she was only part time.
A few people behind me, Ryan’s group clustered together.
Chelsea Morgan, homecoming queen of our sophomore and junior year, stood by white blinds. She folded her arms. She normally waved them around in the hall as she relayed some hilarious story from the big party the weekend before. Chelsea was Ellie’s best friend. They’d been friends since we’d been in Mrs. Arnette’s fifth-grade class together. Beside her stood her boyfriend, Jason Quigley. He was Reverend Quigley’s son, and his popularity was tied to the success of the First Baptist Church of Wylow. I’d occasionally see him in the hall, sitting between a few homely-looking half-moon faces, serenading them with a Christian hymn or revamped Christ-centered pop song. He and Chelsea had been together for two years—since his breakup with Sandy Rogers, one of the Wylow Baptist Church’s most devout followers and head of their teen outreach programs.
Beside Chelsea and Jason, Aaron Spurr and Jesse Hunter had their hands behind their backs. Aaron’s lips neared Jesse’s ear. He whispered something to him. They were frowning—a distant expression from their usual laughs and smiles. They were always goofing off, the entertainers and the audience of their two-man show. They were on the football team with Ryan and had hung out with him since freshmen year.
The line crept forward, shifting more than moving.
This line’s so slow.
I’d hoped the viewing would stir the realization that Ryan was gone, but it didn’t seem to be working. If anything, this moment was for someone else. Someone older. Someone sicker. Someone different.
Not my Ryan.
Ellie’s Ryan, I corrected myself.
He wasn’t mine. He was Ellie’s.
I made it to a doorway that revealed a room of tabletops covered with vases of white and burgundy flower arrangements and framed three-by-fives of Ryan and his friends.
In the doorway Lynda stood, her cheeks unevenly rouged, black bags under her eyes as noticeable as her sagging double chin. She clutched a pearl-colored handkerchief against her chest.
“Good evening,” she said in a high-pitched voice, her free hand greeting Miss Greer’s as she approached. “Thank you so much for coming.”
“Lynda,” the brunette said as Miss Greer wrapped her arms around the grieving mother. “You’re doing so well.”
Lynda’s lowest chin quivered. Her eyes glistened. She took a deep breath. As Miss Greer released her, Lynda started like she was going to say something but stopped herself. She nodded, urging them into the room with a wave.
I felt weird about approaching her. I’d seen her a lot over the course of my life. Ryan and I used to have sleepovers when we were little, and she was always around. She was a nice woman. Always had been friendly. Something in her manner, in the way she talked, in the gleam in her eyes, naturally set me at ease. Whenever I came over, she’d always ask if I wanted something to eat or drink, always offered to make cookies or brownies. It was no wonder everyone had given Ryan a hard time about his ever-tightening shirts.
Did that have something to do with it? Was he responding to the “How’s Little Debbie?” comments and the latest Chunky Monkey nickname he’d acquired at school? Surely, it couldn’t have been that simple. It was school. We all were the perpetrators and victims of cruel teasing. From kindergarten to sixth grade, kids made fun of my thick, frizzy brown hair and the oversized tees I always wore to school. After the sixth grade, I’d wised up and made regular visits to Great Clips and H&M. Now, people just called me Charlie Brown on account of my fat snout and round featureless face. Didn’t do wonders for my self-esteem, but I’d never considered offing myself because of it. If I hadn’t thought about it, I couldn’t imagine why someone who had as much adoration and praise as Ryan would have. So he’d gained some weight. With a girlfriend who looked like Ellie, who cared what anyone else thought? I didn’t want her, but every other guy in school did.
Lynda wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close. She held me for a few uncomfortably long moments. She’d hugged me before, but never that close. Never for that amount of time.
She sniffled next to my ear. I could hear the suction of wet mucus pulling back into her nostril.
My muscles tensed. I wanted to pull away, to run away. Here she was, feeling terrible, wrapped in grief, and I couldn’t even bring myself to accept what was happening.
It isn’t happening. It can’t be.
“HE CARESSED his nose against her willing, eager nipple,” Ryan had read, “his breath making its way down her breast.”
“Shut up,” I’d whispered, turning the corner into the horror section, hoping to find someone whose presence would shame him into silence. But the store was surprisingly empty. I’d figured we’d have to get closer to the cafe, where others were usually studying and socializing.
It hadn’t been the book I’d been afraid of. He’d kept moving so close. And the closer he got, the more concerned I was about blushing—about doing something that would reveal too much.
“STEVEN, YOU don’t know how good of a friend you were to him,” Lynda said, her words colliding with my memory.
Shouldn’t this force me to face what’s happening?
No such luck.
If anything I felt eerily excited. Like I wanted to do laps around the church. Like I had when Ryan and I were kids and bounced across the fold-out couch at Lynda’s. Not that I wanted him to be dead. I just had all this adrenaline, none of it allowing me to mourn Lynda’s loss… our loss.
Lynda pulled away, her eyes gazing into mine. They were sincere eyes. They were loving eyes. They were soothing eyes. “Thank you so much.”
I couldn’t imagine what she was thanking me for. I’d never done anything. I hadn’t even been one of his best friends. That thanks should have been reserved for Ellie, Chelsea, Jason, Jesse, and Aaron. Not me. I supposed Lynda had linked our childhood friendship and our present one without placing the appropriate space between them. Not that we weren’t good friends. But I wasn’t one of his really good friends. The truth was, just a few days earlier, I was someone he hung out with occasionally. We always had fun. We always laughed and joked around and caught up about what each other was doing, but he never invited me to go to the movies with his other friends. Or to a concert. Or to hang at someone’s house. If we hung out, it was just the two of us. We didn’t talk about serious shit. We goofed around. Like at the bookstore.
Since sophomore year, he’d hung out with a fairly popular crowd—one that probably would have judged him for bringing me to any house parties. Even if he had, I probably would’ve felt out of place. This lopsided position on the social ladder wasn’t the cause of the gap in our friendship. When we were kids, after his dad passed away, his mom had moved across town, placing him in another school district from elementary through middle school. It wasn’t until high school that he had found himself back in my school district and inadvertently back in my life.
Our interactions had been limited to a few “heys” on the rare occasion when we’d run into each other in the halls. But one afternoon, that changed.
Sixth period I had English with Mrs. Corsburry. She’d called on Clark Morgan to answer a question about Fahrenheit 451. Clark hardly did his homework, let alone read books. When he didn’t know the answer, Mrs. Corsburry humiliated him about it and called on me. I gave her the correct answer and didn’t think much of it.
After the last bell, I headed into the nearby restroom—a regular part of my routine. As I was heading in, I saw Clark enter behind me. It wasn’t something he normally did, so I was worried something might be up.
Clark and I had been in elementary and middle school together. By seventh grade, he’d had an enormous growth spurt that left him tall enough to push around other guys, myself included. When we were younger, a lot of kids made fun of his stutter, and I assumed his bullying was revenge for their mistreatment. However, it wasn’t geared exclusively at those who’d harassed him.
A few of the shorter guys in our classes had been his primary targets. I’d only experienced a few shoves when he’d pass me in the hall, which was nothing compared to when he was pried off Mark Harker in the school cafeteria after they’d gotten into a fight over Dana Kricher.
When Clark entered behind me, I felt like he was looking for some sort of revenge, but I assumed if I just got into a stall I’d be fine.
“Hey, f-fat-face,” he’d said.
I ignored the comment, stepped into a stall, and turned to shut the door.
Clark pressed his hand on the door and pushed it open. He arched his eyebrow, as if he was impressed with himself for foiling my attempt to get away.
But what was he going to do? Surely, he wasn’t going to strangle me over that stupid incident in class.
Ryan walked behind him, approaching a urinal along the wall. It made me feel even more at ease. With someone there, especially someone I’d known as well as Ryan, I felt safe. We hadn’t talked to each other in a long time, but I figured he wouldn’t let Clark beat the crap out of me.
I pushed past Clark and headed out of the restroom.
“Hey, I’m t-talking to you, f-faggot!
I glanced to Ryan, who stared straight ahead. I knew he’d heard the comment, so he must’ve been ignoring the situation.
Of course. They’re on the football team together.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so safe. Perhaps Ryan would just let Clark get away with whatever so that he didn’t get ostracized by the other guys on the team.
I continued toward the walkway out of the bathroom.
“Faggot!” Clark exclaimed behind me. “I’m talking to you!” He pushed me so that my head hit the wall.
“Dammit,” I muttered, dropping to my knees and raising my hand to the fresh sting in my forehead.
Clark towered over me, his face tense. “If I talk to you, you—”
He fell to the side, as if he’d been standing on a skateboard and it had slid out from under him. Ryan had an arm around his waist. He threw him against the adjoining wall and laid punches into his abdomen.
“What… the… fuck!” Clark wailed.
Ryan gripped onto his throat and pushed him against the wall, staring him down. His face was bright red, redder than I’d ever seen it. He clenched his jaw.
“You ever fucking touch him again,” he hissed through ground teeth, “and I’ll rip your fucking throat out.”
His words were soft, frightening. Yet they brought me ease. I wasn’t just glad that he’d stepped in to save me from Clark. I was glad it had confirmed that our friendship actually mattered to him.
Clark trembled under his grip, nodding subtly, his eyes wide.
Ryan continued staring him down before finally pulling his gaze away, as if out of a trance. He released Clark and hurried out of the restroom, not so much as glancing my way.
Clark stood against the wall, frozen in terror. I supposed he was just as familiar with this side of Ryan as I’d been.
I dashed out behind Ryan. I wanted to thank him for saving my ass, but he must’ve run down the hall, because he was gone by the time I got out.
At first I thought Ryan’s action had been provoked by our past friendship. I hoped it had. But after that incident, whenever I ran into him, he paid even less attention to me. He wouldn’t even give me so much as a “hey” when we passed each other in the hall. He wouldn’t even glance at me. It was like he was trying to avoid me. The more I thought on the situation, the more I realized Ryan did what he would have done for anyone who was being bullied. I wasn’t anything special to him, and I never would be.
For the next year and a half, Ryan acted ignorant of my existence. It hadn’t been until we’d found ourselves in the same math class junior year that we’d started talking again.
Ryan was in all AP and gifted classes, which—at a school of four thousand students—operated in its own elitist world. I only took college preparatory and honors courses, meaning we never really saw each other. But after Ryan got a B in geometry sophomore year, he dropped down to Honors Algebra 2 in his junior year. That’s when we’d officially started talking again. Gradually, that grew into us hanging out, but neither of us ever brought up the Clark Morgan incident. We just acted like it’d never happened.
I moved into the viewing room.
Ellie stood in the corner, straightened blonde hair draping from dark roots, curling at her shoulders.
This is where the black is.
Ellie and her parents, on either side of her, were dressed in what must’ve been their darkest attire.
They whispered to each other. Ellie looked everywhere but the bulky, closed coffin at the far end of the room. A flower arrangement set on top. Beside it, a large framed picture rested on an easel, displaying those blue eyes, that freckle between the corner of his eye and his temple, and those gnarly teeth that should have been set in braces when he was little.
It wasn’t even a good picture of him. In the black tux he wore, he looked confident, charming—surely as good as he’d wanted to look. But it wasn’t him. It was frozen and lifeless—opposite of the fun and lively guy I’d known. Just a picture. A crappy imitation of the real thing.
It didn’t help me come to terms with what was happening… with what had happened.
I’d seen plenty of pictures of him. His Facebook page, now stacked with condolences—a phenomenon I still didn’t understand—was flooded with pictures. Pictures of him with his buddies. With Ellie. With everyone but me.
That bothered me. I had wanted to be a bigger part of his life. I’d wanted to be so important to him ever since I’d started seeing him again in the halls freshmen year. Even though I knew we weren’t kids anymore, even though we’d both changed so much, I’d wanted to be with him.
That chance was gone. Although it’d never really existed to begin with.
“Oh my God, this is depressing.”
I turned to see Lindsey standing beside me. Her jet black hair curled into her flat chest. Green eyes scanned the room, like she was a spy fearing that someone might blow her cover.
I wanted to say, “About time.”
It didn’t seem appropriate.
Lindsey tucked her pole of a body close, as if to suggest, “I’m only here because he is.”
She’d never hung out with Ryan. She’d made up her mind that he was an asshole who only took up my time when he hadn’t made other plans with his girlfriend or buddies. I assumed she’d made sure to communicate that to some of our peers, which was probably why she was making the physical statement, “I’m here for Steven.” She wouldn’t want anyone erroneously assuming she’d actually given a shit about Ryan.
But she hadn’t known the Ryan I’d known. She hadn’t seen his playful, silly, sincere side. She hadn’t played Mighty Morphin Power Rangers action figures with him. She hadn’t raided newly constructed homes for scraps of wood with him. She hadn’t stayed up, desperately fighting the pull of sleep until dawn with him.
She knew the popular kid—the guy who’d enjoyed people praising his latest article in the school newspaper… or on his blog. The guy who would say hey to anybody he’d had a class with, regardless of whether or not he’d actually ever spoken to them. The guy who wore Diesel jeans and Gap button-ups, as if to say, “I have the money to afford this… even though we live in a shack.” Lindsey didn’t like people who pretended to be better than they were. And that seemed to be Ryan’s mission in life. He didn’t like being stuck in little Wylow, Georgia. He didn’t like suburban life. He wanted to be in the city. He wanted to go to a university. He wanted to work at a big newspaper, covering exotic stories. He was ambitious. Better than me. I was just trying to improve my SAT score, and I’d already missed my deadline for early applications for college.
I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I was only seventeen. How was I supposed to figure out what I wanted to do for the next four years and inevitably for the rest of my life? I wasn’t good at anything. I was average at school. I’d attempted most school activities and hadn’t found anything I actually wanted to pursue. I couldn’t remember lines. Couldn’t catch a ball. Couldn’t stand chess. As for a future career, I couldn’t even bring myself to fill out an application for H&M, let alone decide what I wanted to do one day. Dad’s attitude went something like, “You better figure it out and take every step in the right direction, because you are already so far behind everyone else.” Mom thought more along the lines of, “I don’t care, but your dad is annoying me about this so much that you better go out and get to work.” It was overwhelming, and to appease any concern they had about my future, I’d lied about submitting applications to school and part-time work. I just couldn’t. Every time I’d started to fill out one of those applications, my thoughts scrambled. My chest felt heavy, constricted. In those moments, such a simple thing seemed like the most difficult challenge I’d ever faced.
Lindsey’s eyes fixed on Ryan’s picture. She didn’t have the scowl she normally wore. Her tiny face relaxed, like she was thinking about him, thinking about the kind of person he really was. I was sure this would be a fleeting moment and her usual, constant look of judgment would quickly return.
Her gaze shifted to me, still holding that sincere gleam. The way she glanced over my face, it seemed she was trying to assess where I was at—if I was about to lose my shit. She was always good at reading where I was at mentally. I wondered if she could tell that my biggest concern was people noticing I was in denial about his passing.
“Well, at least they chose one from when he was thin,” she said.
I couldn’t help but giggle. It was a comment that treated the scenario just as I felt it should have been treated. As a lie. A play. A hoax.
“Not everyone can have a zero-inch waist,” I said.
I stifled my amusement, feeling the sort of shame I’d hoped those giggling girls had felt after their outburst.
Lindsey started to smile at my comment but relaxed her face—I assumed to match my emotion.
“How’s Ms. Walters doing?” she whispered, looking over her shoulder.
“Didn’t you have to pass her?”
“No. I snuck in when Ellie’s dad went out back to make a call. Did you really think I was going to wait in that line? Are you kidding? We’re not that good of friends.”
The playful gleam in her eyes suggested otherwise.
“Your mom not coming?” she asked.
“She thinks viewings are depressing.”
“Big fucking surprise.”
I glanced between Ellie and Lynda, surely looking as paranoid as Lindsey had looked before. Neither seemed to have caught the remark. “Will you watch your mouth?”
She sighed… like respecting everyone else’s grief was a great inconvenience.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her tone serious. I understood she was struggling with the sarcastic girl I normally loved hanging out with, but we didn’t need everyone hating us because she couldn’t keep her attitude under control.
“Your mom needs to get a soul,” she muttered.
I shifted my attention back to Ryan’s picture. The freckle. Those eyes.
He’s dead. He’s dead. Feel it. Just feel it.
My mind wouldn’t accept it. It was like inputting a wrong password. No matter how many times I tried, it wouldn’t take. Judging by the smiles and giggles that swept across the room, it seemed others were having the same problem.
But they didn’t really know him. Not the way I had.
They were there because that was where everyone was going that night. It was a night where anyone who was within his proximity had to come—to pretend they’d had meaningful experiences with him. Just like all those Facebook pictures of people who’d posted what was probably the only picture they’d ever had with him.
I didn’t have any pictures with him, but I’d still known him better than they had.
Even students and faculty who may or may not have known him at all packed the place… if only because they’d heard about his death on the news. Like Mr. Kruger, the school counselor, who stood along the wall with some of Ryan’s teachers. He must’ve been making an appearance to lead those most traumatized by the event to his office.
It wasn’t the most nefarious of motives, but it still bothered me.
I looked to those blue eyes once again.
I loved you, Ryan. And now you’ll never know.
Grieve, mystery, family, friendship, love, sci-fi… When Ryan Came Back has it all. As I’ve already acknowledged, Mr. McCormack’s incursion into the Young Adult genre is way over successful.
In this YA M/M romance, Steven Chase is a regular teenager in every possible way; he is terrified of coming out, of applying to college, of finding a job, essentially, he is terrified of growing up. He is just like everyone else, until he is not. Suddenly he finds himself being able to talk to Ryan Walters, his lifelong friend and secret crush who committed suicide a few days earlier; except Ryan assures him he didn’t kill himself and asks Steven to investigate and find out the truth. Steven sets out to find out what really happened, but as the mystery unfolds, he realizes suicide is more likely than Ryan’s theory. Despite the revelations of Ryan’s closeted life, Steven must face the fact that Ryan doesn’t love him.
Mr. McCormack develops, once again, characters that are real and honest. Steven’s reaction to Ryan’s appearance is not one we find everywhere, he is terrified and also curious; but mostly scared out of his mind. What I want to say with this, is that the feelings the main character express are genuine and believable in a way that makes him real.
“Hey, I’m totally seeing that dead guy, and he wants me to solve a mystery he was working on before he died! By the way, I’m gay, and I’m in love with him, and I always have been.”
The supporting characters are once again fantastic. Steven’s mom is so selfish and self-centered… that requires a level of denial that is expertly portrayed in that character. Steven’s friends and classmates, Ryan’s girlfriend, his mother, everyone that surrounds Steven just jump out of the pages.
Something somewhat peculiar about Mr. McCormack’s writing in this piece are the rants. There are a lot of longish speeches that fit amazingly with the pace of the story, and somehow, paired with the feel of the high-school student grieving and turning into an investigator and coping turns this into yet another must.
The best reason to read this one, though, is the feel that the teenagers are real, and not some grown-up tamed down version of them.
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