Vaughn sat down with a calendar to try to figure out when it had started—the exact first day that he hadn’t left the house. There had been a doctor’s appointment in March, he was sure, a checkup for Clara—everything was fine—which he would have marked on the calendar in the kitchen, in the upper right corner of the square, as was his way, which he had learned from his mother, though none of his other siblings did this. March 18. He flipped back through the months, barely noticing the black and white photographs of vintage motorcycles. The calendar was from Barry. Barry, who always made the mistake of buying Vaughn things that only he himself would like: Barry liked motorcycles; Vaughn couldn’t care less. It had taken the first few years of their relationship for Vaughn to accept this wasn’t selfishness or a lack of caring, or even lack of knowledge—just a failure of imagination. Barry would have been standing in the store, knowing he was going to buy a calendar for Vaughn—on its own a good gift, something Vaughn needed and would appreciate, as he had one in every room and was always planning and checking and writing things down—but then Barry would simply pick the motorcycle one because it appealed to him, was thus obviously the best, most desirable one. Maybe it was a failure of empathy, in the end. Barry had a hard time predicting or understanding how other people felt. He certainly didn’t understand Vaughn’s new phobia—his utter inability to leave the house.
Which appeared to have started in late March. The eighteenth was the doctor, bundling little Clara into the car seat, keeping her calm in the noisy waiting room, asking the doctor a litany of questions that all seemed to have the same answer: she was fine, typical, healthy, developing normally, adorable, absolutely and completely fine.
After the doctor’s, had he left the house again? For groceries? For a paper? For a coffee with a friend? He couldn’t remember. And for some reason it was driving him crazy—more crazy, he thought, was probably more accurate—not to know exactly when it had all begun.
Sometimes, when Clara was napping, he would open the front door and stare out at the street. He’d taken art classes in college, learned about perspective, how there was a vanishing point on each horizon, a place where all lines converged and infinity and nothingness became the same. The vanishing point was like a black hole, sucking in everything, even light.
This is what he saw when he looked down the street—all the houses the same, all the cars the same, getting smaller and smaller. He actually felt it that way—the house two down from his was smaller than the one next door. The Jenkinses, they were short, he knew that about them. The people at the end of the street were dwarves, then, had to be—and the people beyond those impossibly small Lilliputians.
He knew it wasn’t really true—that if he moved from his home and walked down the street his perception would change. But since he never left, he caught himself thinking they really were that small. Why should he leave the one place in the world that was his, that he knew was the proper and perfect size? Let the rest of the world shrink away to its vanishing points and disappear.
Clara’s size seemed to change every day. She’d been six weeks old when they’d adopted her on January 28. Vaughn thought of that as her birthday, even though she’d been born in December of the year before. It was hard to believe they had gone all the way to Romania to get her, and now Vaughn couldn’t bring himself to go to the end of the driveway.
Her needs were so simple to meet, and they were everything to him. Sometimes she would fuss slightly, sleeping in his arms, and he would slip the tip of his pinky finger into her mouth. She would suck—instantly—her mouth working and her hard gums pressing against him with surprising force, sealed. When they were like that, he wouldn’t think about anything at all for hours at a time.
Whenever Barry left, Vaughn was afraid he would never come back. It felt like a giant switch inside him that flipped from one anxious extreme to another. While Barry was away, Vaughn rubbed his fingers between each other like dry sticks and imagined all the terrible things that could happen to Barry: car accidents, mostly, sometimes involving the very motorcycles from the calendar, even though Barry didn’t own one, but also roofs collapsing and escalator accidents and all manner of different shootings—psychotic lone gunman and mal-adjusted crazed students on rampages and gang warfare infiltrating the suburbs and cop-and-robber shoot-outs. You could never predict the path of a stray bullet. But then with cop-and-robber shootouts there were also the cop-and-robber car chases, which brought him back to vehicular deaths.
Other than bodily harm to Barry he now had a more recent, more surprising, and somehow more upsetting worry—he worried about who Barry might run into, what he told them about Vaughn (and Clara), what they said back to him, who might be comforting him through what surely had to be a difficult time.
But whenever Barry walked through the door with his plodding gait and that stupid bowler hat he had worn all the way to Bucharest, the switch flipped in Vaughn’s mind: after a few minutes of euphoric relief he started to worry instead about what Barry was thinking and what might upset him and what each of his reactions meant, and also when Barry would leave again, and why, and also whether he loved Clara as much as he, Vaughn, loved Clara, and if Barry loved Clara more than he loved Vaughn, and whether love could ever be measured or quantified in any way at all.
The days had a steady rhythm. Daylight came and went, meals were made and eaten, laundry was done and undone with startling speed. Barry left and came back. Over several weeks it became clear he left more than he came back—Vaughn first thought he imagined this, but then when his suspicion burned too brightly he started keeping track of Barry’s coming and going in a ledger. He found it was true that his time away was increasing, and therefore also increasing the time Vaughn spent worried. Barry came back, more and more often, with something—a flat of bottled water or a couple extra bags of canned goods or reams of toilet paper and paper towel. Vaughn knew it meant something bad was going to happen, but he didn’t say anything because the sight of all these things coming into the house actually filled him with a sense of security and made him feel a weird thrill. A small part of him wondered if maybe Barry was filling up the house with everything the two of them and Clara would ever need, so that no one would ever have to leave again.
“You can’t blame me for going,” Barry said. “I’m not abandoning you, Vaughn, not really. I just can’t live here. You have to realize that your behaviour affects me too.”
The whole time he said it he had his eyes to the side, looking at Clara, who was eating Cheerios off the floor, which Vaughn was sure he’d cleaned but was still partially worrying about, even while he was trying to listen. Vaughn didn’t like that Barry was leaving, but he was already used to it. Vaughn figured he and Clara would be okay—you could get almost anything delivered if you ordered it online—but what about Barry, out there all the time, facing all those dangers? How would Vaughn ever know Barry was okay if he stopped coming back? He imagined Barry getting smaller and smaller as he drove down the street—maybe he would drive so far he would simply become microscopic and disappear.
For Vaughn it happened in a slow cascade of moments: the wave, the look in Barry’s eyes, the way the vertical strip of light shrunk thinner and thinner as the door closed, the sound of the door lock clicking into place, the key going in, the deadbolt turning, the key sliding out, footsteps going farther and further away, until there was nothing. Nothing but the house and Clara.
There was still Clara. Who needed changing. Who needed everything.
Which he could give her.
“You can’t keep her in there with you,” Barry said. He’d brought crocuses, his favourite flower, which Vaughn could never stand. “It’s not healthy for her to live with someone so anxious. What kind of behaviour patterns do you think you’re modelling for her?”
“She’s a baby,” Vaughn said. “Right now all I need to model are basic motor skills.”
As if Barry would be a better father: on his own, with his selfishness and his inability to anticipate needs. Clara had been Vaughn’s idea, not Barry’s, and he was livid that Barry would try to take her from him now.
Vaughn needed to prove Barry was wrong—had been wrong to go and was wrong about taking Clara. Vaughn needed a solution, needed a way to prove he could leave the house if need be. Because he knew he could if he put his mind to it, if he saw an infallibly logical reason. Failing that—he had to face the fact he had more or less already failed—he would simply have to trick himself.
That idea sparked something in him. He would convince himself of some danger in the house—something lurking and evil—and let that impel him and Clara outside. Then he would show Barry how normal he was—take Clara to the park and snap a couple of pictures—and when it got to be too much he would just go back home, knowing the danger was something he’d made up and not a real threat.
Not today of course. No point in rushing things. Clara would be up from her nap soon, and expecting her snack and time in the playpen. She could pull herself up and stand now, and she did it every afternoon.
He didn’t want to upset her routine.
Vaughn was surprised to find how easily he could discount his invented threats, while the ones outside of the house grew and multiplied, unrelenting in their terrible destructive potency. He tried to tell himself there was an intruder in the basement, some drifter who had pried open a window and crawled in there, murderous and hungry. But when he actually bundled Clara up in her powder blue jacket and packed the diaper bag full of snacks and everything they would need, the man in the basement seemed silly. It was far more likely that a band of teens would mug him on his way to the park, or that a ring of child smugglers would have a scout there, waiting to inject him with some paralytic and snatch Clara and sell her on the black market. He would rather face one man in the basement—who was probably weak from hunger anyway—than the vicious hordes that were surely waiting outside.
Vaughn came up with more and more elaborate in-house dangers—he even went so far as to imagine booby traps set up around the house: spring-loaded beds of nails that would crush him if he opened the wrong cupboard, hair-triggered trapdoors to shark-infested water tanks, slip-knots and nooses in even the kitchen twine and dental floss.
But he would always elude them, hopping over imaginary trip-wires as easily as he would step over a squeaky board. He conjured not just intruders but monsters and otherworldly creatures, invasions of his tiny neighbours, but nothing ever trumped the danger of the outside.
One day a letter arrived from Barry. Only it wasn’t actually from Barry—it was from a lawyer representing Barry, contesting custody, alleging that he, Vaughn, was unfit to take care of their infant daughter. Vaughn did not feel frightened by the letter, he felt angry. And there was such a power to that feeling, and such relief in feeling something other than worry, that Vaughn took to reading the letter over and over again in the subsequent weeks. Vaughn took to feeling the heavy cardstock paper in his hand, tracing the crest on the letterhead with his finger.
It was a tricky situation—if he didn’t leave the house to show up at the hearing, they could take Clara away. If he could leave the house to go to the hearing, they had no reason to take her away.
On the day of the hearing, Vaughn dressed in his best suit. After breakfast and before her nap, he dressed Clara in her lace baptismal gown, which was so shapeless it still fit her fine. She fell asleep without fussing too much, allowing him to fasten his cufflinks and tie his tie, even polish his shoes before using a shoe horn to put them on.
The scrape of the match head and its tiny explosion sounded to Vaughn like distant applause. The lawyer’s letter seemed to silently welcome the flame. Vaughn set it down on the sill and the fire leapt up the curtains far faster than he had imagined it could, fast enough to make his heart thud hard against his chest. He was worried his panic would wake up Clara, but she was still sleeping, and the fire was remarkably quiet, almost purring. The stucco on the ceiling was already turning black with the smoke.
He’d done it. Now the house was unquestionably more dangerous than anything waiting outside.
Vaughn backed up, and sat down beside the bag he’d packed with everything he wanted to keep. Clara was mercifully, somehow, still asleep. He would go in a second. The fire was just so interesting to watch. He wondered when Clara would wake up.
When she did, they’d leave.
Matthew J. Trafford is the author of The Divinity Gene: Stories, which was published to rave reviews across Canada and the US. His stories have been anthologized in Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow and Best Gay Stories 2012, among others. He has been nominated for the National Magazine Award and CBC Literary Prize, and has won the Far Horizons Award from The Malahat Review. He lives in Toronto where he is working on a second collection of stories about alternative families, both monstrous and miraculous.