Every night Shaun’s dreaming about something crawling from his head while he sleeps. He doesn’t remember the details but wakes expecting a bloody nose, something live and wriggling. But he’s not even congested. He rolls over and tries to remember what he used to dream, before this. He watches Nell’s smooth, pale shoulders around the tiny straps of her gown. She’s half hanging off the other side of the bed, and he wonders what she’s dreaming. Nothing good, probably. Neither of them ever dreams good dreams.
He finally swings out. He finds his house shoes and puts on his jeans and big Carhartt jacket. He stands on the back porch and lights a cigarette. It’s still dark. The thermometer over the door reads 23 degrees. No wind, though, so it’s livable. Cold enough it reminds him of smoking menthols back in college. He’d taken to Salems for a while. They’d come in a cool slide-out pack. He hasn’t seen them in years, wonders if they still do that.
He’s not allowed to smoke indoors anymore, since they married. Irritates the hell out of him. Out in the alley, beneath the security lamp, a cat jumps to the top of the neighbor’s wooden fence. He’s one Shaun recognizes, belongs to a couple up the street. Someone’s shaved the cat’s back. There’s a square chunk of hair missing from just about his back hips. Shaun watches it balance across the separated slats of the fence and tries to figure out what’s happened to it. He stands, walks across the frozen grass of the yard. He talks and mumbles to the gray and white cat. It’s skinny, too thin. It turns its yellow eyes to him, and he holds out a hand. Rubs its head against his fingers.
Shaun lifts it from the fence and sets it on the ground. It winds through his legs, too friendly and trusting for its own good. He crouches to examine the cat’s shaved back. Something’s had hold of it. Punctures run a line across its spine. Not a dog bite. Probably another cat. Whipped its ass. Wounds have been cleaned. Don’t look too bad but don’t look comfortable. Shaun goes in the house, gets in the refrigerator. He carries a slice of ham to the cat, tears it into strips, and feeds them out. It sniffs and dabs its nose at the first piece and then takes it. It gulps everything down and then goes to winding around Shaun’s legs again.
He wonders how anything gets through the world like that, frozen and alone and unable to stay home. He smokes another and heads inside. He undresses and crawls in the warm sheets, feels his own cold spread through the bed. Shaun stares up at the dimly lit, pebbly ceiling. Beside him Nell shifts in her sleep, rolls over hard and settles again. He doesn’t think she wakes, but she says something about the cold, a chill, and she frowns.
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