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by Marvin Shackelford

He skulks about the dark with the care of a detective hunting clues. His shaky hands lift trinkets from living-room shelves, photos in the den, odd and unmatched china from the dining-room cabinet. He waits for them to speak, transpose some meaning of the household’s lives onto him. He wants to feel the spirit that drives the family forward. Outside, the moon delivers its ordnance across ploughed fields lying in snow. Could be mistaken for summer cotton from the warm vantage of the house, but the half-bare trees forming a western windbreak bear testimony to winter. He feels a sudden enmity for the endlessly straight telephone poles marking time along the tar-chip road, the wavering set of tracks he cut across the pavement’s face.

The basement is finished but mostly empty. A leather couch rests against one wall, a boxy television set and table saw on the other. The sort of place to which both father and teenager might escape, one with a beer and the other a girl. Adulthood and its vague emulation. A single Led Zeppelin poster hangs above the couch and does little to clarify. Cardboard boxes stacked waist- to neck-high fill a room to the side. Their lives’ long history, too much to consider. He counts the stairs up again: 13. Superstition gives him a moment’s pause, but he moves on. The soft groaning of wood from steps seven and nine.

In the nearest bedroom the son sleeps on the bottom of two stacked beds. The blankets hoop tightly around his frame as though preserving him for some frozen, unknowable future. Clothes litter the floor, paper and books and the disemboweled workings of a pellet gun scattered across the desk. Nothing he can make sense of.

A lamp on the dresser lights the master. He leans at the doorframe but can’t enter against its neatness, the bed with its lavender and sage comforter pulled and tucked so tightly. Across the hall in the guestroom he discovers the wife. Out of pocket, a surprise. Her back to the door, thin nightgown glowing. The plastic tubing of a CPAP machine reaches from the bedside table to nourish her through the night. Her breath echoes against the steady air it pushes, fragile. He steps close and runs a hand along the smooth bend of her arm, over her shoulder and up her neck. The gentle twist of her ear. She doesn’t move but breathes more deeply, a grasping inhalation and slow release. He pushes fingers into her hair and winds up a fistful and holds desperately. All the life of her thrums around him, and for a moment he sees it. She might be starting to stir. He isn’t sure. He doesn’t know what else to do.

Marvin Shackelford is author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a couple forthcoming volumes of stories from Alternating Current Press and Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Wigleaf, West Branch, MoonPark Review and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee, earning a living in agriculture.