A Shade Less Perfect
A Short Story by Max Barry
“It’s not that I don’t like him. During that mess with the Baker account, Dave was a rock. As far as bosses go, he’s great.” I squinted ahead. “Is this it?”
“Hmm? No. White picket fence, Julie said.”
I pressed down on the accelerator. Oak trees, high hedges, and trim, vibrant lawns slid past. “Ninety-five percent of the time, Dave and I get on great. It’s just—”
“That’s it,” said Elizabeth. “White picket fence. Go up the driveway; she said there’s enough space for our car.”
I blew air between my teeth. “Of course. See, this is what I’m saying. Naturally their driveway has plenty of space for cars. You know?”
“No.” Elizabeth turned around in her seat to inspect our cargo. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“He’s competitive. He has to have the best of everything, all the time. God forbid Dave has a house with a tiny yard like the rest of us. Because what if one us didn’t? He can’t stand to be second best. That’s what I’m saying.”
“If you can stand it at work, you can stand it for one afternoon tea. I want to see Julie.”
“But that’s the thing. At work, he’s my superior. I acknowledge he’s my boss. Outside of work, though, he’s supposed to be my equal. So outside work, him telling me about his stock portfolio or how his golf handicap is down to eighteen is obnoxious.” I pulled up and gestured over the steering wheel. “You see? Look at that. He could have parked that in the garage. Why is it out in the open?”
Elizabeth looked forward. “Ooh. Convertible.” Then she saw what was behind it. “Oh my God.”
I peered up. “They probably don’t even use half the rooms. How could they? It’s just two of them and the baby.”
“It must have cost a fortune.”
“Oh, by the time we leave, I’m sure Dave will have told us exactly how much of a fortune it cost.”
“Not jealous, are we?”
“No! I couldn’t care less if Dave wants to mortgage himself up to his eyeballs to have a, what, eighteen-bathroom house in the most expensive suburb in the city. What annoys me is that I know the whole time we’re here, he’ll be thinking how impressed we must be with his house, how much better it is than ours. Because that’s all he cares about: being better.”
“Your paranoia is showing, darling.”
“You wait. Because you know what he’s worst about. What he never stops going on about. Not the house. Not the car. Not the stock options.”
“They’re just proud.” She unfastened her seat belt. “So are we.”
“Proud is one thing. This is obsessive. You’ll see.”
Elizabeth twisted around again. “He’s asleep.”
“For God’s sake, wake him up,” I said, alarmed. “If he’s drowsy, Dave will think he’s slow.”
I pressed the door bell and took a step back. Elizabeth was cradling Charlie, who, thank God, had not burst into tears the moment upon waking, but rather was looking about with clear, interested eyes. I was carrying the bag of nappies, wipes, bottles, favorite toys, books, and the thousand other miscellaneous items vital to a successful outing with a ten-month old. Deep in the house, I heard chimes. Through frosted glass panels in the front door, vaguely human shapes began to resolve themselves.
“Relax,” Elizabeth said. “You’re standing there like a robot.”
“I am not.” I unclenched my hands. “Just one thing. I told Dave that Charlie could walk.”
Elizabeth’s mouth dropped open in outrage, but the door handle was already turning and suddenly there was Dave in his cream sports jacket and open-necked shirt and Julie cradling their ten-month old son, Sebastian. We were a mirror image of each other (only Dave with no bag), so spontaneously we all burst out laughing. Then Elizabeth and Julie both went, “Ahhhh!” and rushed forward to coo over each other’s babies. Dave and I shook hands and grinned at each other while I noticed that Dave had apparently spent Saturday having his teeth whitened. “I can’t believe how big he is,” Elizabeth said, and Julie said, “Look at all Charlie’s hair,” because the last time Elizabeth and Julie saw each other was in hospital, shortly after each had given birth.
“Yes, the little man’s up to nineteen pounds,” Dave said. There followed a pause, during which he was clearly waiting for me to tell him Charlie’s weight. I declined.
“Charlie’s seventeen and a half,” Elizabeth said. “Aren’t you, little guy?”
“He adorable,” Julie said.
“Well, come in, come in.” Dave stood aside and swept an arm grandly out, inviting us into the mansion. He planted a kiss on Elizabeth as she passed, and I went to smile at Julie but she leaned forward expectantly, so I kissed her cheek. During this maneuver I got my first look in ten months at little Sebastian. He was chubby, with dark, wet-looking hair and skin like fresh plaster. He was also asleep and drooling down one cheek. I was surprised; following Dave’s tales at work, I had been expecting a muscular, 30-inch Adonis, with lightning crackling in his eyes.
When I pulled back from the kiss, Julie was looking at me with a smile. Julie is very attractive—Dave never settles for second best, of course—and this smile made me say something stupid; in fact, the last thing in the world I wanted Dave to hear. But for a second it was just me and Julie and her ten-month old baby, so I said, “He’s a perfect little boy.”
Julie’s smile wavered. “Well—”
“Yes,” Dave said. “He is.” I turned to see those newly-whitened teeth shining at me. “Would you like the tour?”
This was about as mind-numbingly boring as you would expect, the tedium moderated only by intense irritation as Dave made overly jovial interjections about the expense of various items of furniture and the appalling amount of space they simply couldn’t find a use for. Elizabeth, naturally, gushed over everything, but knowing that Dave was waiting for me to do likewise, I restricted myself to grunts. When the torture finally ended, Dave said, “Well! Shall we adjourn to the sitting room?”
The sitting-room was, of course, enormous. It was lavish. It offered a view over the vast expanse of their magazine-quality gardens. And in the middle of the floor were two baby rockers, side by side. They were positioned so we could insert our babies and compare them accurately.
“Tuck little Charlie into a rocker, if you like,” said Dave, slipping into an armchair.
“No, I’ll hold him,” I said, but Elizabeth was already in motion. She slipped him in and fastened his straps while, beside her, Julie did likewise with sleeping Sebastian. Charlie bounced and gurgled. I felt as if I’d betrayed him.
We settled into the sofas. “Would you like a beer, Jonathan?” Dave asked. “Or something more serious? I have a Scandinavian malt you might like.”
“Whatever’s going is fine.” Scandinavian whiskey. Honestly.
“Anything for you, Elizabeth?”
“No, thanks. I’m still breastfeeding.”
Dave nodded. “Sebastian’s mainly on formula now. Julie was breastfeeding, of course, but Sebastian has... special needs.” He and Julie exchanged a look, and there was an odd pause. Then he smiled at us. “Amazing how ravenous they are, isn’t it? I’d swear Sebastian drinks his own body weight every day. Of course, he needs the energy. I tell you, sometimes he’s crawling up the walls.”
“He’s walking?” Elizabeth asked. I groaned inwardly.
“Since six months! Now he runs. Sometimes we have trouble catching him.”
“Unfortunately, though, you may miss the show. He usually sleeps until six or seven.”
Elizabeth’s face fell. “Oh, no. I want to see him properly.” I was thrilled. It meant I wouldn’t have to tell Dave how wonderful his kid was, and know he was hearing: Better than Charlie. “He’s sleeping well, then?”
Julie said, “Ah, during the day, yes. But he hasn’t worked out what nights are for yet.”
“Huh,” I said. “That’s rough. Charlie’s slept through since he was three months.”
“Yes, we’d be totally sleep-deprived, if we didn’t have Nicola,” Dave said. To Elizabeth’s confused look, he added, “The nanny.”
Julie said, “Dave tells me Charlie’s walking as well?”
“Sure is!” I said.
“Well,” Elizabeth put in, “walking could be a bit of an exaggeration. He pulls himself up on things.”
“And walks,” I said.
“He staggers.” Dave laughed at this, and, irritatingly, Elizabeth turned to laugh with him. “He staggers when aided by furniture.”
“He doesn’t need furniture.”
“He does, Jonathan.”
“I’ve seen him walk plenty of times. You must have missed it.”
“I am with him ninety percent of the day, and I have never seen him walk without hanging onto something.” She looked amused. “For God’s sake, you don’t need to exaggerate. Plenty of kids aren’t walking by ten months. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
During all this my eyes were fixed on Elizabeth, because I couldn’t bear the thought of turning to see Dave’s smug expression. But finally I couldn’t hold out any longer. And to my surprise, he didn’t look smug at all. He looked relieved.
“He crawls,” I admitted. “He crawls like the wind. But he can’t walk yet.”
Dave and Julie laughed. Again, it wasn’t what I’d expected: they weren’t patronizing but open and friendly—almost grateful. A second passed, then Julie said, “Oh, tell them.” Dave shook his head slightly. “Dave.”
He sighed. “Well... the thing is...”
“Sebastian’s a lovely baby,” Julie interrupted. “He really is. We adore him. But...”
“This is just between us,” Dave said. His voice was hard. “This can’t get around at work. You understand, Jonathan.”
Elizabeth said, “Julie, if something’s worrying you, please, you can tell us. It’s perfectly natural to worry about every little thing. And if there’s anything I learned from Charlie, it’s that babies are individuals. They’re not always like in the books.”
Dave nodded. He rested one hand on his wife’s knee. “I know. You’re right. It’s just... well.” He laughed. “I should just say it.”
Julie nodded encouragingly.
He said: “Sebastian doesn’t reflect.”
There was silence. I said, “Reflect what?”
“In mirrors,” Julie explained. “He has no reflection. You can’t see him at all.”
Elizabeth said, “What...”
“I’ll show you.” Julie abruptly stood up and disappeared into the kitchen.
“I know,” said Dave. “It really threw us, too. Well, still does. There’s nothing about it in any of the books.”
I said, “I’m sure it’s just...” But I had no idea what it was just. “I’m sure it’s...”
Julie returned with an ornate hand mirror. She knelt beside the rocker and held the mirror near Sebastian’s head. “Can you see?”
I craned my neck, because the mirror was only showing the blanket Sebastian was wrapped in. Then I realized this was not because of the angle. The angle was fine. The problem was Sebastian.
Elizabeth’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh dear God.”
Julie rocked back onto her heels, pressing the mirror to her chest. “You think it’s terrible.”
“Oh, no,” said Elizabeth. “No, Julie. It’s just... what did the doctor say?”
“Well,” Dave said, “the thing is, we haven’t talked to the doctors. We haven’t talked to anyone. We didn’t even notice until he was a few weeks old. I mean, in all other respects, he’s fine. He’s a perfectly normal baby boy. In fact, he’s very advanced. You know, Jonathan, I’ve bent your ear enough times about how quickly he’s developing...” I waved this away. “And he’s healthy, I don’t need to see a doctor to know that. He just has... this odd problem.”
“Is it all mirrors?”
Dave nodded. Julie said, “And cameras. He doesn’t come out on film.” She bit her lip, suddenly close to tears. “That’s how we first discovered it. When our photos came back...”
“We thought it was a joke,” Dave said grimly. “I was going to drive down to the photo place and tear strips off them. Then... well, there’s a mirror above the mantelpiece in the dining room. We must have walked past it a hundred times with Sebastian, but you know how it is when you have a newborn; you don’t look at anything else. But this time...”
“You can’t imagine how scared we were.” A fat teardrop rolled down Julie’s cheek and spattered on the mirror. “And all the family want photographs, and we don’t know what to tell them! What can we tell them?”
“Oh, Julie...” Elizabeth sprang from the sofa and threw her arms around her. Still, I saw her glance down at Sebastian: at sleeping, silent Sebastian.
“I’ve been trying to research it on the internet,” Dave said. “To find other parents with the same problem. But all I can find is...” He grimaced. “Well, you know.”
I did, but didn’t want to say it. “What?”
He forced the word out. “Vampires.”
“What?” Elizabeth said, honestly confused.
“Vampires don’t cast reflections,” Dave said, reddening. “According to myth.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” I said.
“Of course.” He glanced at Julie. “But... that’s where we got the idea.”
Julie sobbed. Beneath her hair and Elizabeth’s arms, I couldn’t see her face. “He was always hungry! No matter how much he drank, always hungry!” Her body shuddered.
“We only give him a little. Just a few drops, mixed in with the formula. I doubt he can even taste it. But he started putting on weight. Now we’re afraid to stop.”
I said, “You’re talking about blood?”
Dave nodded, his face a mask of strain. “It’s... I mean, the thing is... we didn’t know what else to do.”
I stood, walked across the carpet, and knelt in front of Dave. I put both my hands on his. “Dave. You did the right thing. Both of you. You’re wonderful parents. There is nothing wrong with Sebastian. It’s like Elizabeth said: each kid is different. That’s the way of the world. So Sebastian doesn’t reflect. So what? It doesn’t make him any less of a beautiful little boy. It doesn’t make you love him one single bit less. Does it?”
Dave was crying now. He shook his head. I did something I hadn’t done in ten years: I hugged another man.
I found myself facing Elizabeth over Dave’s shoulder. She raised her eyebrows. I shook my head.
It was almost six by the time we left. We were exhausted. And, to be honest, I wanted to be out of the house before Sebastian woke. I didn’t want to see him running along the hallways. What had Dave said? Sometimes he’s crawling up the walls.
Charlie had fallen asleep and didn’t stir as Elizabeth strapped him into his car seat. She climbed in the passenger side and closed her door. As I reversed down the long driveway, I began to hum a tune.
Elizabeth sighed, exasperated. “Sometimes, you are too much.”
“You know very well what.”
“I comforted the man! I was sensitive! I helped him!”
“You could have mentioned what happens to Charlie every full moon.”
“Oh, shush,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”