Earlier, Joanna had dissolved a red-colored pill with the number one printed on it into Pete’s sippy cup and, as per usual, it had taken about twenty minutes to take effect. Although the pills were not always precise, a 1-RED should put him out for a full day. This way, they’d be able to enjoy the party without having a three-year-old boy rampaging around. Maybe they could take his sister to dinner at a restaurant that wasn’t kid-friendly, for a change. Of course, going out would mean leaving Pete alone for several hours, but the app would notify them of anything unusual.
Carrying the boy’s limp body in her arms, she brought him up to his bedroom. His Lullaby sleeping sack was spread out on his bed, nestled amidst ruffled blankets and stuffed animals. She hated this part, placing him in the sack—it always made her think she was putting him into a body bag. The manufacturer had tried their best to make them more cheerful. They came in baby blues and pinks, with images of dinosaurs or unicorns. But it still looked like a body bag to her. The inside was lined with soft beige plush, which was more to appease the parents than the child. After all, when a child was on Lullaby, they didn’t feel anything.
Joanna placed her son inside, fixed his hair, and paused to admire his sweet little face. His eyes fluttered open, and he gazed at her with a big smile.
“Mommy, Kimmi’s birthday party now? We eat cake?”
“Shh, it’s naptime. Close your eyes for mommy,” she said softly.
She loved to watch him sleep, his peaceful face so different from the wild and unruly toddler that he had become. A part of her felt guilty that he’d be missing out on his sister’s birthday party. But it’s better this way. This way, they wouldn’t have to manage his tantrums or worry that he would embarrass them in front of the other parents. This way, Kim would have a perfect day, and Joanna and her husband could savor the moment. Their little girl was turning seven.
Next to her, her son’s breathing slowed, grew shallow, then eventually stopped altogether. Humming a lullaby, she attached the air circulation tube to his sleeping sack and zipped it up over his face. Inside, her son slipped into a chemically induced hibernation. Joanna gave the bag a few gentle pats, then turned off the lights and left the room. On a shelf above the boy’s dresser, out of a child’s reach, the screen on the sleek oval-shaped pill dispenser glowed a soft red.
Outside, it was a beautiful summer afternoon. Kim and her friends ran around the backyard, racing between the slide, the swings, and the bouncy castle, stopping occasionally to grab a mouthful of chips or a glass of lemonade.
Joanna’s husband, Allan, was at the barbecue, grilling hamburgers and sausages, and chatting with other dads who were sipping on beers pulled from a nearby cooler. The mothers sat around the tables or stood by the bouncy castle. They were split into several groups, mingling, and discussing the trials and tribulations of parenting over glasses of white wine and vodka coolers. Joanna was standing next to a tall woman in an orange summer dress named Patricia. The two were close, having bonded long ago when their daughters became friends during kindergarten.
“Where’s Pete?” Patricia asked.
“Just until tomorrow. What about Aron?”
“We put him down until he can go back to daycare on Monday. Dale has a mountain of work this weekend and it’s much easier with just Anna. She can entertain herself for hours!” Patricia took a sip from her wine and snorted, “I have no idea how parents who refuse to use the pills manage it.”
“I know. For the first time since Kim was born, I actually feel well-rested.”
They laughed. One of the other moms chose that moment to join them.
“Are you talking about Lullaby?”
“Yeah, we were just saying how great it’s been,” said Patricia
“We both have wild boys,” Joanna added by way of explanation.
“We love it too. It’s a game-changer. Although did you hear that the school board is going to start forcing some parents to hold their kids back because of the…” she searched for the words, “chronological age discrepancy?”
Joanna’s smile faded.
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Patricia shrugged. “They just get to stay younger longer.”
“Sure, but we’re still getting older. I know I don’t want to be fifty living with a sixteen-year-old who should be in her twenties!”
“Well, you’d have to use Lullaby a lot for that,” Patricia laughed.
Joanna didn’t like having to think about the downsides to Lullaby. She and Allan had really needed it. Their marriage had been on the verge of falling apart due to a combination of sleep deprivation, the stress of work, and having no time alone together. Lullaby had fixed all that. She finished her wine and put her glass down.
“Excuse me, I need to check on the cake.”
On her way inside, Joanna walked past the men standing around the grill and overheard Patricia’s husband.
“The best use of Lullaby is for private time with the missus!” Some of the other guys started to chuckle. “You put your kids out for a little Lullaby, and bam!—you can be as loud and as freaky as you want!”
They laughed. Allan noticed Joanna watching them and gave her an apologetic look as if to say sorry, it’s just guy talk. The others followed his gaze and saw Joanna shaking her head at them. After she went inside, they burst into raucous laughter.
Joanna paused a moment in the dark, cool house. It was so still when Pete was asleep. She walked over to a tablet on the wall and switched the camera feed to his room. The image on the screen changed to reveal a darkened bedroom. Pete’s body was immobile inside the blue Lullaby sack. The only indication that she was looking at a video and not a still image was the slight movement of the air circulation tube.
Joanna hadn’t expected to miss him. But there it was, that old feeling. It had been ever-present those first few weeks when Allan had pushed her to start using Lullaby. She had resisted him, saying she could handle it. The two kids, the constant arguing, the neediness, but eventually she had acquiesced. Over time, the feeling had faded, and putting Pete down for a “nap” was just part of their new routine. But sometimes it punched her in the gut with the sense that all of this was somehow very wrong. He should be here, she thought. He should be with his sister and his parents. Part of the photographs, part of the memories. His laughter and his tantrums… All of him.
She turned off the feed and sighed. They’ll make it up to him. Next weekend they’ll take him to the zoo or set up a playdate with one of his little friends. Something just for him alone.
Back outside, Allan called to her that he was ready to start serving food. Joanna walked over to the bouncy castle where the girls were dancing to music from a Bluetooth speaker. She gave them a two-minute warning.
Joining Patricia again, she found herself in the middle of another conversation about Lullaby.
“How long have any of you ever gone?” Patricia asked with a mischievous glint in her eyes. Joanna recognized that look as a sign that her friend was getting drunk.
“Well…” said one mother, looking around, unsure if she should admit what she was about to say. “I might have the record.”
All eyes turned to her.
“Greg had booked us this romantic trip to Spain, but with all the travel, we would be gone longer than the five-day pill. So, we chanced it and gave her a 5-RED and a 3-RED, and it worked great! She was totally fine when we got back.”
“Wait a minute, you left the country while your daughter was on Lullaby for eight days?” Joanna asked.
“No, no.” The woman smiled. “Her grandmother was at the house. And besides, we kept an eye on her vitals with the app.”
“Eight full days!” another woman exclaimed.
“I wonder what the world record is,” Patricia giggled nervously as if expressing a forbidden thought. “Could you imagine two weeks with no kids?”
“Or two months?”
“Or two years?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Patricia laughed. “Imagine coming home from a long trip only now your precious little two-year-old is still two and still needing diaper changes. No thanks!”
Joanna felt something tug at her dress. She looked down and saw Kim, watching all of them with a confused look on her face. The other women spotted Joanna’s daughter and giggled self-consciously like teenagers who had been busted talking about pot.
“What is it, honey?”
“Mommy, is it time for cake yet?”
The next morning, Joanna was sipping her coffee and listening to Kim babbling to her grandmother on the tablet when her phone buzzed in her pocket. The Lullaby app had detected that Pete was waking up. Patting Kim on the head, she went upstairs to start the process.
Inside his sleeping sack, Pete opened his eyes and smiled up at his mother as she took him into her arms. He always woke up sweaty after Lullaby, and if he’d been napping for more than a day, he tended to smell bad. It had become their routine to bathe him after waking from RED-pill naps.
Dried, lotioned, and dressed, she cradled her son in her arms and carried him downstairs for breakfast. The aftereffects of a long sleep had not yet worn off, and Pete was extra cuddly as he slowly woke up. She pressed her cheek against his soft hair, enjoying the smell of him.
In the kitchen, Kim was still at the kids’ table, still eating her toast in tiny kid-bites and talking to her grandmother. She recounted the story of how she and her friends had danced inside the bouncy castle and how everyone had sung happy birthday when Mom had brought out her cake. Pete cuddled his mother, both arms around her neck, listening to his sister.
After a while, he looked up at Joanna, a confused look on his face.
“Mommy, birthday is today? We having cake?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Pete darling,” Joanna said, stroking his hair. “You slept through it. The birthday was yesterday.”
He nestled his head into her chest and started to cry.
“It’s okay darling, there’s still some cake in the fridge. You can have some after lunch, okay?”
“Okay,” he whimpered softly.
She put him down next to his sister and brought him his breakfast. He listened to Kim telling more stories about the party. The presents, the cake, going for dinner at a grown-up restaurant with just mom and dad. He sat quietly, eating his cereal, his little body tucked into itself.
“Mom! Pete won’t stop hitting me!” Kim cried from the living room.
Joanna stomped over from the kitchen to find Pete hitting his sister with the plastic magic star wand that had been part of a fairy costume she had received for her birthday.
“Pete, put that down and apologize to your sister!”
He ignored her and kept hitting his sister. Why she didn’t just move away was one of the eternal mysteries of childhood.
“Stop hitting me!” Kim yelled. “Mommy, can you make him take a nap?”
What did she say? Did she mean Lullaby? Shit! We can’t have Kim asking to put her brother on Lullaby!
“Kim, it’s important we work on helping Pete with his behavior, okay?”
“Make him nap, Mommy! He’s gonna break my wand!”
“NO KIM!” Pete shouted, hitting her even harder, “I DON’T WANNA NAP!”
Then he brought the wand down so hard that it broke into pieces. A small cut appeared behind Kim’s ear, and she wailed in pain.
“Pete, goddammit!” Joanna snapped.
Pete roared with rage and threw pillows off the couch.
Joanna took a look at Kim’s cut, but it wasn’t too bad. She carried her seven-year-old to the bathroom to wash it off, leaving Pete alone in the living room, still yelling. Dammit, they had been having such a nice day. Why did he have to get like this? Kim was sobbing now.
“I want him to nap, Mommy!”
Well, why not? she thought. It was almost noon, and he’d have to nap in an hour anyway. Maybe a little 4-ORANGE pill would do him some good. A four-hour Lullaby to give him a reset and everyone else a break. But she’d been relying on the pills too much. She had to keep him in the real world, work on his issues or he’d never improve. They had half a dozen toddler parenting books around the house, but she never had time to read them. Maybe this afternoon, she’d let Kim play on the tablet, and she would go through the books while Pete napped. Figure out a plan to work through these tantrums without Lullaby.
“Stay here, honey. I’ll be right back.”
Joanna went upstairs to Pete’s room and walked over to the white oval-shaped pill dispenser that was part of the Lullaby system. She heard Kim following behind her. Joanna normally did this part in private, not wanting Kim to know too much about how it all worked. But today she was too tired. Downstairs, she could still hear Pete throwing toys and screaming No nap!
“Is this it, Mommy?”
“Yes, dear. This little machine makes pills to help Pete nap.”
The dispenser itself was simple and, like most home devices these days, it was designed to be inconspicuous. Next to her, Kim had pulled up Pete’s toddler chair and was standing on it to get a better look at the machine. Joanna entered the six-digit password—Pete’s birthday—to unlock the device.
“How does it work, Mommy?”
“Well, love, there’s different pills for different nap times. We can make orange pills for when he just needs a little nap, or red pills for longer ones—those go as high as five days. And that’s it. Mommy puts in the number, let’s say four, and selects the color: orange.”
“Mommy, can we do red?”
“No, Sweetie, that’s too long. We’re just going to do a few hours.”
“But it’s so much fun when it’s just us.”
“I know, honey, but Pete is part of our family.” She gestured at the device. “This is just like…getting a babysitter. We can’t do it all the time. Just for special occasions. Okay?”
Joanna entered the number and color of the pill and hit enter. Somewhere inside the device, there was a soft whirring sound and then a clink as the newly synthesized pill fell into the dispenser slot.
“Mommy, have you ever made me nap like Pete?”
Joanna froze. She turned to look down at her daughter.
“No, dear. You never needed it.”
From the living room came the sound of children giggling. Joanna smiled. They had been playing so well together lately. They had bonded over the tablet, of all things. One rainy afternoon, she had let them play with it on the condition that they take turns. She had expected them to fight, but to her surprise, they got along perfectly. They sat for hours, snuggled together side by side, passing the tablet back and forth, Kim patiently showing her brother how to play the little kid games.
This budding new friendship hadn’t all been roses. Joanna was saddened to see it come at the expense of her relationship with Kim. Her daughter had grown distant with her, occasionally treating her more like a peer than a parent. Still, the resulting change in Pete’s behavior had been incredible. They hadn’t used Lullaby in over a week. Most evenings, the kids would take the tablet to Kim’s room, and Allan and Joanna would spend time alone together. They sipped glasses of wine and watched some of the grown-up shows they’d been unable to see with kids around.
“I think Pete is turning a corner,” Allan said.
“I know.” Joanna sighed contentedly, enjoying the effects of the wine they were sharing. “Allan, honey, why don’t we just…cancel the Lullaby subscription?”
Allan considered this for a moment.
“It’s so expensive,” Joanna added.
“Let’s see how Pete does for a little while longer.” He put his arm around her. “Remember Cancun?” Joanna squeezed his hand. “I’d love to take another trip, just the two of us, before we stop.”
From the living room, they heard Kim talking excitedly to Pete. She was showing him family photos on the tablet again. It was something they had been doing a lot of lately.
“See, Pete, this is the bouncy castle where me and my friends played.”
“This is the cake Mom made. It was delicious!”
“Kimmie, I can see more cakes?”
“Sure! Let’s look at your birthday. Let me find it. Here! Here’s your friends. There’s Aron and Grace from daycare. And there’s the cake. And look! There’s a picture of the entire family: Grandma, Grandpa, Mommy, Daddy, and you.”
“Where is you in picture, Kimmie?”
It had been a rainy Sunday and the kids had spent the morning watching cartoons and playing together. At lunchtime, Kim had insisted they play restaurant and that she and Pete serve lunch for their parents. Joanna and Allan had sat obediently at the kid’s table, Allan pretending to be a difficult customer, and Joanna, his mortified wife. The kids had squealed with joy at their father’s antics.
After lunch, the kids dragged Allan upstairs to play with them in Kim’s room while Joanna stayed in the kitchen to tidy up. A few minutes later, she noticed something was wrong. She was having difficulty concentrating and felt a wave of exhaustion roll over her. Maybe Allan could watch the kids for a bit, she thought. She could use a nap.
Walking upstairs, Joanna heard the children whispering conspiratorially in her bedroom. Knowing them, they were probably hiding from their father, but too excited to stay quiet.
“Kids? Allan? Where are you guys?”
Joanna reached the bedroom door and braced herself against the frame as another wave of fatigue hit her.
“Allan, are you in there? I really need to take a nap.”
She opened the door.
Inside the room, the lights were out. Pete sat in the middle of her bed. Beside him was a large shape. It took her drowsy mind a second to understand what she was seeing. It was Allan inside Pete’s sleeping sack. Holes had been cut for his arms and legs, which lay limp on the bed. His body and head were hidden from view, zipped up inside the baby-blue sack. She was angry at first; those were expensive! But as she stumbled further into the room, she realized this wasn’t a game.
Allan’s body was still, like a corpse. Like a child after Lullaby.
Smiling, Pete said, “Daddy is gonna sleep for a really long time, Mommy. It’s gonna be really silly.”
She felt a hand grab hers. It was Kim, pulling her further inside. On Joanna’s side of the bed lay a pink Lullaby sleeping sack covered in pictures of unicorns. She started to panic.
“Kim, what’s going on?”
“I found my sleeping sack, Mommy. You said you never made me nap. BUT YOU LIED!”
“Oh, baby, we barely ever-”
“I’m really good at sub-shtractions you know,” Kim interrupted, still guiding her mother towards the bed. “I saw the photos. I saw the dates, Mommy.”
Joanna’s heart sank. Oh, God, please no.
“Mommy, how come I’m only seven years old? I should be eight! EIGHT!” she yelled. “And Pete. We saw the hospital photo from when he was a baby and you let me hold him. Mommy, he’s supposed to only be two years younger than me. How come he’s still three years old? How come I’m seven and he’s three?”
Kim’s small nails dug into her mother’s palm as she dragged her towards the bed, towards the pink Lullaby sack. The one they had kept hidden.
“How many times have you done this to us? HOW MANY?”
On the bed, Pete jumped up and down excitedly, repeating over and over, “I’m five years old!”
“Oh, my babies. I’m so sorry.”
Joanna started to cry. What had they done? She was slipping again, getting drowsier and drowsier. With one last burst of energy, she cried out, “ALLAN WAKE UP!”
“He’s taking a nap, Mommy. You’re going to nap, too. Pete and I need some alone time.”
Kim pulled her down to the bed and onto her pink Lullaby sack.
“Let’s get you in your bag, Mommy.”
“Kim, please baby. Mommy is not mad. Bring me my phone. We have to call Grandma right now!”
“No, Mommy. No phones. You’ve had enough screen time today. Now let’s get you in your bag.”
Joanna was so tired.
“What color?” she moaned, struggling to get the words out.
“Red!” Pete answered excitedly.
Underneath her, she felt the plush lining of Kim’s sleeping sack. A part of her mind was screaming at her to wake up.
“Whaaatnumbfer?” she slurred.
Please let it be a 1-RED. Please, God!
“The number is…five!” Pete said it like he was answering a question on Sesame Street.
No! she thought, no longer able to talk.
“That’s right, my baby brother!” Kim squealed. “And how many did we make?”
“Ten for mommy and ten for daddy!”
“You’re so smart, my little boy.”
As she succumbed to the effects of Lullaby, Joanna felt her body grow numb. Ten 5-RED pills. She was going to die. They were both going to die.
Through her drooping eyelids, she made out Pete, standing over her, fixing her hair. Kim worked at rolling her body into the sack. Though bigger than Pete’s, it was still far too small for an adult. Joanna heard scissors cutting through the sack. They were making holes as they had for Allan. Oh, God. She couldn’t move, could no longer think straight. Sleep descended on her like a warm fog.
She felt a prick. Kim had nicked her leg.
She was slipping from consciousness now. Falling deeper and deeper into sleep. A part of her was inside somewhere, full of fear and panic, trying to stop the inevitable progression of Lullaby. Her last sensation was of her son leaning in to kiss her on the cheek goodnight. As her eyes closed for the last time, she did not hear the zipper being pulled up over her head.
In the dim light of their parents’ bedroom, the children sat holding hands. They listened to their mother’s breathing slow, grow shallow, and then…stop.
Copyright © 2022 David Worn