A Triptych Tale …

A Guide to Serious Parenting

A Triptych Tale

 

ZYGOTE

Martina slid from atop Simon’s panting body and pressed her face into the crook of his neck. His skin radiated warmth. Artificial moonlight from the sensuality enhancer cut pale patterns across his chest and thighs. Traces of cinnamon and chocolate lingered in the air. Her heart pounded heavy against his side.

Simon smiled broadly. “That was —”

Voices trickled in from the hallway. Martina lifted her head, thick tangle of hair spilling across Simon’s chest. A whisper, then the scuffling of feet. Simon shot her an uneasy glance. The hotel’s soundproofing had fallen short of its reputation.

Martina got dressed. Her trembling hands surprised her.

“Did it work?” she said.

Simon was wrestling with the drawstring of his pajama pants. He checked his wrist, where a soft glow emanated from his link. He grinned.

“We won’t know for sure until Monday,” he said. “But your fertilization assistant is broadcasting a ninety-nine percent probability of success.”

Martina threw herself at him. His long arms encircled her. None of their friends thought they’d make it this far together, with their globetrotting lifestyle and demanding careers. Yet here they were. They held each other for a long moment before turning to face the door.

“Ready?” he said.

She squeezed his hand. “Let’s make a promise.”

Simon raised an eyebrow.

“Let’s do this our way,” she said. “No matter what.”

The door whooshed open, bringing a torrent of noise and light. Streamers hung in swaths of blue and pink. Stacks of pastel cupcakes lined the coffee table. Champagne flutes stood frothy guard along the wet bar. Twelve beaming onlookers formed a semicircle in the suite’s living area. At the sight of the couple, they burst into applause.

“Let’s do this our way,” she said. “No matter what.”

Simon’s eyes glinted against a sliver of light. “No matter what.”

“Congratulations!”

Martina feigned surprise while fighting the urge to cross one leg in front of the other. She hadn’t thought to check for unseemly stains. She smiled into the flashes of a dozen tiny camera-drones buzzing around them. Simon’s fingers slipped from her grasp as Carla, his zaftig mother, pulled him into a hug.

“My son!” Carla said into his shirt.

Tess, Simon’s boss at MyLife Incorporated, approached Martina flashing a perfect smile.

“We’re so excited for you!” she said. She held her infant daughter in both arms, swaddled in soft pink terry and sound asleep despite the din.

Huan, Simon’s father, regarded Martina over his hooked nose, lips angled perpetually down. He nodded curtly.

“Good work,” he said, holding out his right hand.

Martina hesitated. She hadn’t had a chance to wash her hands. Huan’s eyelid twitched once, twice, three times before Martina gave in and shook his hand firmly. It would be his first grandchild, after all.

“There’s someone here to see you.” Huan led her to the projector. Yellow light shimmered through the center of the room, resolving into a pair of beaming faces.

“Mamá! Papá! You made it!” Martina spoke in English for the benefit of the other guests.

Her parents’ shifting eyes betrayed their discomfort. Papá chuckled nervously, the sound a fraction of a second out of sync with the image. All the way from Santiago, the latency was surprisingly low.

“We wouldn’t have missed it,” he said. “It’s our first conception party.”

“Mine too,” Martina said with a wink. Her parents’ expressions eased slightly.

Tess handed her daughter off to her husband, then guided Martina and Simon to the far end of the room. The crowd drew silent. Tess reached into her handbag and withdrew a small plastic box, then handed it to Simon. Black lettering across the top read: MyLife Dot, version 1.0.

Simon’s eyes widened. “It’s ready?”

Tess smiled. “Thanks in no small part to your hard work, Simon, MyLife is ready for primetime. As a token of my appreciation, I’d like to present you with your very own system.”

Simon glanced at Martina, who was chewing on her lip. Coding the MyLife system (”just the hardware drivers,” he always insisted) had dominated Simon’s waking life these past years, but was the system right for them? Simon stepped closer and rested a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s just a passive monitoring device,” he said quietly. “And the system is customizable. We can still do this our way.”

Martina’s gaze flicked from Simon to Tess, then back. Turning the gift down could be a crushing blow to Simon’s career. And besides, MyLife represented the latest technology. To keep up as parents, it would be foolish to say no. She forced a smile, then nodded slowly. The crowd sighed in relief.

To keep up as parents, it would be foolish to say no.

Simon opened the box carefully, producing a tiny applicator between his thumb and forefinger. He locked gazes with Martina. When he raised his hands to brush her hair back, they carried with them lingering traces of her own scent, reminding her of the void he’d left inside of her. Her skin flushed.

He dropped to a knee and tugged the waist of her pants down slightly, to just above the hairline. He pressed the applicator to her skin below her navel, and waited. Martina imagined the nano-device crawling out and burrowing beneath the top layers of skin. A phantom tickle sent a chill up her flesh.

The central projector flickered, and the image split. Mamá’s and Papá’s faces hovered on one side. On the other, a textured orb sprang into focus. It hung in the air, spinning like a tiny green planet drifting through the ether. Beneath the virtual zygote, a caption read: Welcome to MyLife. Your child is T-minus 266 days from a perfect birth.

The crowd erupted into cheers.

“Is that it?” Huan said, pointing at the zygote.

Tess’s husband Keenan leaned closer to Huan, speaking quietly. “Technically, it’s an approximation. Your daughter-in-law’s internal fertilization assistant is still ensuring the zygote forms as planned. But success is nearly assured.”

Huan nodded knowingly.

“Just wait until the data starts rolling in,” Keenan said. “Constant biological and environmental monitoring is going to ensure a perfect pregnancy and a perfect birth. With MyLife, you and Carla can track your daughter-in-law’s nutrition, hydration, exercise, sleep schedule — all in real-time. You’ve got everything you need to ensure that Martina and Simon are serious about parenting.”

“Good work,” Huan said, as if Keenan was MyLife’s CEO instead of his wife.

Tess pulled Martina aside. “We’ve got so much to talk about. The trimester parties, the gender reveal, the first kick social, the shower. And of course your labor party. The best thing about pregnancy is that it’s all about you!”

Martina smiled weakly. The virtual zygote bobbed in the center of the hotel suite.

“Simon and I still want to do this our way,” Martina said. “You know.”

“The best thing about pregnancy is that it’s all about you!”

Tess put her arm around Martina. “Of course! Pregnancy and parenting are fully customizable. It’s up to you to tell MyLife what you want from the experience. Within the system parameters, of course. You don’t want to raise a second-rate child, do you?”

Martina tugged at her drawstrings. “Of course not.”

She turned toward Simon, but he’d already been dragged to the other end of the room for a champagne toast. Someone stuffed a glass of seltzer water into Martina’s hand. She tried to catch Simon’s eye across the gulf of in-laws, neighbors, and colleagues, but it was no use. All she could think of was crawling back to the confines of the bedroom, burrowing against his side, breathing in his sweet smell.

Her gaze drifted to the giant three-dimensional zygote. The text had changed: Parenting rating: 50%. Conception results: adequate.

The clutter and chatter had grown overwhelming. While no one was looking, Martina swapped her drink for a champagne. She’d never liked the stuff, the bubbles always going straight to her nose. But it felt good on the way down. Her nerves were starting to settle when the projector flickered.

Parenting rating: 45%.

The room grew quiet. A dozen faces turned to her. She set the glass down with a suddenly shaking hand. She’d have to make up the points along the way.

#

LABOR

“The amnipulse was successful.” The doctor’s bushy eyebrows waggled in the florescent glare. “Labor is expected to proceed for five hours.”

Martina was about to respond when she realized the doctor was speaking with his head angled toward his lapel microphone. The door flew open and a crowd streamed in. Carla pushed a rattling cart of champagne bottles, still sealed. Huan shuffled in behind her, handing martinis and hors d’oeuvres to the other guests. Digitized blue confetti glittered overhead, where a gaudy marquee read: Congratulations Martina and Simon!

Martina pulled her arms closer to her sides to hide the sweat marks on her floral hospital gown. The cramps had dulled thanks to the medication, but the hospital bed was too soft and her spine ached. At the rear of the room, the projector displayed a drifting fetus, head down and knees tucked against his tiny ribcage.

Carla leaned closer. “I’ve been watching your progress through the MyLife network. You’ve been cutting your exercises short these past weeks!”

“I had a rush project at work —”

“Working so soon before labor,” Tess said. “That doesn’t sound like the makings of a serious parent.”

Martina glanced at the door. “Have you seen Simon?”

“His father’s giving him the ‘good luck’ speech in the hall. What can I get you?”

Martina dropped her voice. “My stomach feels like a sea cave with this liquid diet. I’d kill for some Chinese food —”

Carla slapped the bedside. “I told her not to eat those egg rolls last week. MSG! She lost a full percentage point from her MyLife ranking. All for ten minutes of indulgence!”

Martina’s face flushed. In the past nine months MyLife had taken the nation by storm, selling a million units in the first week alone. It was already seamlessly integrated into every facet of society.

“Never mind ...” Martina said.

“I think the Chinese takeout can wait,” Carla said. “This is a once in a lifetime experience.”

Martina furrowed her brow. “Actually, I always wanted three kids —”

In the past nine months MyLife had taken the nation by storm, selling a million units in the first week alone.

“Three!” Tess put her hand to her forehead. “How could you possibly give three children the attention they deserve? How would they each feel special and unique?”

Martina squinted. “Well …”

“Three children,” Tess said in a hushed voice. “The poor neglected things!”

The doctor returned, motioning to the crowd. They bustled back to the waiting area. In the ensuing moments of quiet, the projector indicated an incoming call. Soon familiar faces smiled down at Martina.

“Mamá! Papá!”

“We wish we could be there,” Papá said.

Martina smiled. “It’s good enough just to see you.”

“Are you enjoying your labor party?” Mamá said.

Martina’s gaze drifted to the door that held the crowd at bay. “Yes. It’s just … don’t you think it’s a little much? I didn’t expect all this attention. All this pressure.”

Mamá smiled, her face a network of soft wrinkles. “I’m sure their intensions are good. You wouldn’t believe the crap my mother-in-law made me eat in my third trimester.”

Papá glanced away nervously.

“People have obsessed about babies forever,” Mamá said. “If we didn’t, humans probably would have died off long ago.”

Martina smiled uneasily. The projector flickered back to the virtual fetus as a swarm of camera-drones flooded the room. The drones buzzed quieter than the guests, yet their eyes pressed just as close.

Four hours and forty-six minutes later, Feri Torres-Roberts was born to a standing ovation. Champagne flowed. Huan served pâte and cream cheese wontons, although Martina was relegated to a superfood smoothie. Feri’s skin was like warm velvet against her cheek. With all his veins and wrinkles and snot, he was the most perfect thing she had ever seen.

“He looks like an old man,” Huan said.

“He cries like one,” Carla said.

“Nonsense,” Tess said. “He’s very proportionate. Surely at least a sixty percent physical score!”

Simon, with trembling hands, waved an electronic wand across Martina’s midsection. The projected fetus avatar shimmered and disappeared. Tess offered a small box, from which Simon produced a tiny applicator. He pressed it gently against the back of Feri’s neck. The crowd drew in a collective breath.

His physical score was fifty-eight percent, while his sensory attentiveness earned only forty-one percent.

The projector shimmered again. An animated representation of Feri sprang into focus, swaddled in blue blankets. A cascade of vital statistics and trait scores filled the left sidebar. His physical score was fifty-eight percent, while his sensory attentiveness earned only forty-one percent. The right side detailed achievements: smiling, crawling, first steps, many more. The list was daunting. Only one was unlocked, displayed beside a shining chrome star. It read: Birth.

The crowd erupted into cheers.

Beneath Feri’s avatar, the text read: Parenting rating: 49%. Birth: adequate. Try harder on the next stages. It’s not too late for a perfect child!

Tess patted Martina on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re here to help. We’ll all be paying close attention, to make sure his scores improve.”

Martina pressed her eyes shut, to keep the room from spinning.

#

FIRST WORD REVEAL PARTY

The doorbell chimed for the fifth time in as many minutes.

“Tess, so good to see you.” Martina air-kissed Tess’s cheek, then led her and her family inside.

“How’s the little one?” Tess said. “I’ve been tracking his scores. Sounds like he could use some pre-preschool counseling!”

Martina frowned. “He’s not even a year old —”

“It’s never too soon — oh, cupcakes!” Tess made a beeline for the refreshments table, her daughter Kayla hustling along at her side.

The living room was abuzz with chatter. Opaque balloons formed a bobbing perimeter. Streamers clung to the ceiling, still furled, awaiting the big moment. Of course the MyLife system couldn’t predict Feri’s first word — he’d already been uttering the monosyllabic masterpiece for a week now. But Tess had insisted they keep it a secret for the reveal party. Martina’s stomach churned at the thought. Feri’s pronunciation was still far from perfect.

At the center of the room, Feri’s avatar sat bare-chested in a disposable diaper, blinking dumbly. A few chrome stars, and far more darkened voids in between, hung to his right. One pulsed with an anticipation of its own: First Word. Tess and her husband Keenan scrutinized the vital statistics to the avatar’s left.

The patter of skin on hardwood caught Martina’s attention through the din. She ducked between a cluster of college friends, intercepted Feri’s furious crawling before he reached an unattended purse. She lifted him — when had he gotten so heavy? — and redirected him to safety. Feri’s ensuing frown produced a chorus of delighted squeals from the onlookers.

“Martina.” The tips of Tess’s lips inched downward. “We couldn’t help but notice Feri’s vitamin levels.”

“I’ve been having a hard time getting him to eat avocado —”

“There are simulations for that,” Tess said. “Things that can help you.”

“Yes, I know. I just — with this latest project at work, I haven’t had time —”

“Martina.” Tess lowered her voice. “As serious parents, we have to make time. MyLife is saving you hours by scheduling doctor’s visits, preordering baby supplies, engaging him in cerebral activities. That’s time saved that you should be spending on Feri.”

Keenan nodded severely, their daughter asleep against his shoulder. “With your salaries, one of you should really think about staying at home full-time. That’s what I did, and little Kayla here is ahead of the MyLife curve in ninety percent of the categories. It’s a commitment to serious parenting.”

“You know how much Simon loves his job,” Martina said. “And I couldn’t bear to leave the architecture firm, not with the projects I’ve been getting. Besides, I don’t want to be relegated to baby talk all day long. I’d go crazy without some adult time.”

Tess and Keenan shared a troubled glance, eyebrows furrowed.

“There are better ways to enrich your child. Safer ways.”

Martina hastened to change the subject. “There is one thing that can drag us away from our work. Travel. We’re thinking about taking Feri to Peru next year to see Machu Picchu.”

Tess’s eyes bulged. “That sounds horrific! Snakes, high elevation, food poisoning. There are better ways to enrich your child. Safer ways. I’ll have Keenan drop off a copy of the MyLife Little Traveler expansion pack as an early Christmas present. It’s the least we can do. Feri deserves the best in both enrichment and safety.”

“Right … thanks.” Martina looked toward the kitchen, invitingly empty. “Can I get either of you something to drink?”

“That would be great. Two waters, please.”

Martina hustled off, past the giant blinking avatar and the bobbing balloons. On her way out, she noticed Kayla tugging at her mother’s shirt.

“But Mom, why does Feri get a party?” Kayla said. “I thought parties were about me.”

“We’re just being polite,” Tess said, not quietly enough. “Your scores are the best in the neighborhood, don’t you worry.”

Martina slipped into the kitchen. The fridge door shifted transparent as she approached. A beer sounded great, but she couldn’t risk it in front of all these people. Something refreshing instead, then. The contents appeared in neat rows, ordered and organized by the house’s central processor. But what was all this crap?

“Hon?” she shouted over her shoulder. “Where’s the juice?”

“Juice! Heavens.”

Martina turned to see Carla sweeping into the room.

“Is it still the twentieth century?” Carla rested her palm on the granite countertop. “You might as well feed your baby soda!”

Martina decided against reminding Carla that she’d stopped breastfeeding months ago on account of her work schedule. What she drank had nothing to do with Feri anymore.

“Simon and I had a talk about your family’s health levels,” Carla said. “And we agreed that it was past time to sync your house’s central processor with Feri’s MyLife. Your kitchen’s now stocked accordingly.”

Martina’s gaze shifted to the doorway. “Simon agreed to that?”

“It’s only sensible. He didn’t tell you?”

Martina couldn’t remember Simon mentioning it, despite the fact that it felt like years since they’d discussed anything other than Feri’s MyLife statistics.

“It must’ve slipped my mind —”

A manic stream of circus music projected from the living room.

“It’s time!” Carla dragged Martina out of the kitchen. “Feri’s about to level-up!”

Feri sat in his high chair, a throne before the awaiting masses. The ambient lights dimmed, and a spotlight shone on the pudgy child. Only the glow of Feri’s blinking avatar shared his visual prominence. A tiny drone buzzed near Feri’s mouth, just out of arm’s reach. He smacked his lips, and the sound carried through the drone’s directional microphone, amplified tenfold by the surrounding speakers.

An intense silence descended over the crowd. Feri blinked into the light.

Martina took a hesitant step closer. “Go on, Feri. Just like we practiced —”

An intense silence descended over the crowd. Feri blinked into the light.

“Don’t goad him!” Carla jabbed Martina with an elbow. “You’ll lose points.”

Feri straightened in his high chair. His lips parted, and a garbled syllable escaped.

The crowd pressed closer.

“What did he say?” Carla said in a tense whisper.

“I couldn’t tell,” Tess said.

Feri cocked his head. A trail of drool clung to his lip, descending all the way to the high chair’s plastic tray. He uttered the syllable again.

The audience moved closer, eyes squinted, concentrating.

Feri’s eyebrows furrowed in monumental frustration. He uttered the syllable again, spittle showering the tray.

“Oh my god,” Carla said. “Is he saying …?”

Feri slapped his hands definitively against the tray. He sucked in a lungful of climate-controlled air.

“Fuck!” he said.

The attendees drew in a collective gasp. Tess clamped her hands over little Kayla’s ears.

“Fuck!” Feri said again, even louder than before.

Carla shot Martina an acrid glare. The avatar giggled and blinked, dumbly. Martina tried to explain, but the words caught in her throat. The silence stretched on.

Finally, mercifully, the lights rose. A lilting tune commenced from the speakers. Glittering streamers unfurled from the ceiling. In a massive, synchronized explosion, two dozen balloons burst, revealing a plush automotive armada.

“He said truck,” Simon said. “He likes trucks.”

Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd. The damage, however, was done. Within fifteen minutes, all but the most devout attendees were packing up to leave. Martina watched from the corner, hugging herself, wondering how it had come to this. Despite devoting every available hour to her child, his MyLife score still hovered balefully in the center of average. The expectations of serious parenting had become a suffocating weight.

As the last of her colleagues mumbled parting pleasantries, Martina spotted Simon ducking into the kitchen, Feri sleeping against his shoulder. A jolt of resolve straightened her back. She had to put an end to this, get them back to where they’d started. She strode across the room. At the threshold, she paused. Hushed voices drifted around the corner.

“… not about being a good husband,” Carla said. “It’s about being a perfect father. Feri is depending on you!”

Simon mumbled something unintelligible.

“You have to think about what’s best for Feri,” Carla said. “His scores must improve!”

“You’re right,” Simon said. “I’m sorry I’ve let you down.”

“You’ve let yourselves down,” Carla said. “You’re the ones that wanted to be parents.”

Martina pressed her back against the wall, her willpower waning. Feri’s avatar blinked at her from across the room, and giggled. Underneath, the text read: Congratulations on leveling up! Take a ten-minute break, then get started on the next stage.

#

PRESCHOOL ENTRANCE EXAMS

The principal scrutinized Martina through her half-moon glasses. She tapped a stylus against her robust red lips, roughly in time to Martina’s own pounding heartbeat. Behind the principal, immaculate gold lettering read: The Santa Monica Academy for Individual Growth and Achievement.

Martina sweated beneath her pinstripe suit. She could only maintain the principal’s gaze for a few seconds at a time before looking away involuntarily, as if repelled by a dark force. To Martina’s right, Feri swiveled his head, marveling at the tactful arrangement of trophies and plaques that plastered the office walls.

She could only maintain the principal’s gaze for a few seconds at a time before looking away involuntarily, as if repelled by a dark force.

“Feri’s MyLife metrics are … suboptimal,” the principal said.

Martina leaned forward. “He’s very creative. And his stats have been improving —”

“He is in need of guidance. We could help him, but … I’m not certain you’d be able to keep up.”

Martina smoothed the creases of her pants. The MyLife virtual socialization coach had warned her about this tactic. If only she’d had time to complete more of the simulations …

“Do you intend to join the PTA?” the principal said.

“Of course,” Martina said.

“Would you and your partner be providing prompt transportation?”

“We’ve staggered our work schedules. Simon will drop him off, I’ll pick him up.”

The principal arched a penciled-in eyebrow. “You both work.”

Martina pressed her lips together to smother her response. There wasn’t a preschool in town that a single salary could afford.

“Fundraisers?” the principal said.

“We’d love to help.”

“Field trips?”

“Most definitely.”

“Science fair?”

“We already have blueprints for an internet-controlled, solar-powered, toy dump truck.”

The principal frowned. Martina’s eyelid twitched.

“Tee-ball?” the principal said.

“We’ve memorized the schedule. We won’t miss a game.”

“In-class participation?”

Trap question. “Although we care solely about our child’s success, we wouldn’t dream of interfering with your curriculum.”

The principal nodded curtly. “Wise. Our curriculum is unique — personalized for each child to strengthen his or her individual expression. Of course we integrate with every child’s MyLife, allowing for real-time feedback and a world-class merit system. Through continuous encouragement and customized classroom experiences, each child is treated as they should be: as the most important child in the world.”

Martina hesitated. “That … sounds great. Preschool has come a long way —”

“This is no preschool, Ms. Torres-Roberts.” The principal slapped her stylus onto the desktop. “It’s a credentialed academy!”

Martina chewed on her lip.

“We are the future,” the principal said, short-breathed. “Your child is the future. I suggest you start treating him as such.”

“We have been —”

“Your prepared responses don’t fool me, Ms. Torres-Roberts. Any serious parent could see through your facade.”

Heat crawled up Martina’s neck and face.

“Just look at these MyLife metrics!” the principal said. “And it’s no wonder. Your daily parenting attention — is that really all the time you can dedicate to your child?”

Martina glanced at Feri. His finger was lodged in his left nostril, past the knuckle.

“Second-hand toys, generic parties. It’s no wonder he was so late with all these achievements. Still wetting his bed at age three. Pronunciation problems. And his vitals — do you even know the meaning of the word probiotics?”

“Second-hand toys, generic parties. It’s no wonder he was so late with all these achievements.”

“Yes, I —”

“You probably thought you could just do things your own way.”

Martina sat stunned. The principal’s words had dislodged a memory, packed so tightly behind simulations and level-ups and achievements that it felt foreign, as if someone else had experienced it and she was witnessing it for the first time. Pale, artificial moonlight. Cinnamon and chocolate.

Martina stood and grabbed Feri by the hand. She turned to leave.

Feri stabbed a pudgy digit toward a plaque along the wall. A stylized bas-relief depicted a toy dump truck.

“Dumb fuck,” Feri said.

The principal gasped.

In the hallway, a pair of security guards was dragging a disheveled man from the school grounds. He held a roll of tape in one hand and a crumpled stack of flyers in the other. As they passed, one of the flyers slid to the ground. Martina leaned closer. Bold lettering read: Fed up with serious parenting?

One of the security guards stooped down and swiped the flyer. He nodded to Martina.

“Apologies for the disruption,” he said. “This won’t happen again.”

Martina led Feri to the parking lot, reeling.

Back at home, she found Simon leaning against the kitchen counter, tapping at his tablet while shoveling cereal into his mouth. Feri ran off into his ever-expanding jungle of toys. Nearby, his avatar grinned beneath cartoon lettering that read: Let’s go to Machu Picchu, little traveler! Touch START to begin.

“How’d it go?” Simon said between mouthfuls.

“We need to talk.”

Simon froze, spoon mid-motion. His lips twitched. His gaze fell to his feet.

“There are lots of other preschools,” he said. “We’ll try again.”

Martina leaned against the fridge, causing the door to shift transparent. Still no juice.

“It’s not about the school,” she said. “Although yes, that was a disaster.”

Simon half-smiled, a shadow of his old face-lifting grin. Tiny bunches of wrinkles splayed out from the edges of his eyes. His shoulders were stooped, and his hair was thinning.

Martina tried to remember what it felt like lying next to him in that hotel room. She breathed in through her nose, but couldn’t conjure the scent of cinnamon or chocolate. She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she said at last, the words tumbling out on their own. “The parties, the interviews, the metrics. All this damned attention. I’m taking Feri off the network.”

Simon squinted at her, as if her words were as foreign as Feri’s jumbled syllables.

“I know he’ll be alienated,” Martina said. “I know what our families and friends will think. And I know it could put your job at risk.” She paused. “You can tell them I forced you. We can get separate places, if it’s easier.”

Simon closed the gap between them and drew her close. His shirt reeked of wet wipes, but an undercurrent of musk persisted. His body felt like home. Knots in her shoulders that she didn’t know she was carrying eased slightly.

“Let’s do it,” he said.

She looked up in disbelief. “What about … being a perfect father?”

“I don’t think there’s any such thing. But there might be a better option.”

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and unfolded it.

“I found this at the community pool,” he said. “I haven’t had the nerve to show you.”

Martina took the paper. Bold lettering read: Fed up with serious parenting? Join your local Renegade Parents chapter today, and get a free MyChild trial integration. No hardware changes required!

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and unfolded it.

They hustled into the living room. Martina’s hands shook as she pulled up the interface, punched in the address and trial code. Feri’s avatar winked out of existence, replaced by a loading screen.

A spray of lights cascaded down. In their wake, a new avatar sat in place of the old one, plump and vacuous. Slightly more realistic, but otherwise the same. A host of obscure statistics expanded along the left: aplomb, puissance, acumen. On the right blinked unrealized achievements such as Neighborhood Chess Champ and Kindergarten Valedictorian. Along the bottom a marquee announced: Welcome to MyChild! Better metrics, better results, better children.

The avatar giggled dubiously. Martina’s skin prickled.

“It’s … the same thing,” Simon said.

On impulse, Martina reached beneath the projector’s base and flipped the power switch. The avatar, interface, and marquee disappeared, producing a silence both foreign and exhilarating. Feri glanced up from beneath a pile of stuffed sea creatures, captivated by the lack of activity from the projector.

Martina glanced at Simon. “Whatever happened to doing this our way?”

Her words felt suspect. Did she even know what our way meant anymore?

Feri staggered to his feet and spread his arms in a mighty, world-embracing gesture.

“Let’s go to Machu Picchu!” he said.

Martina’s doubt evaporated. Simon smiled broadly. They sprang into action. Simon snatched his tablet, began searching for plane tickets. Martina placed a voice call.

“Hello?”

“Hi Mamá,” Martina said. “How’s the weather in Santiago?”

Mamá paused, and in the silence Martina knew she was smiling. Martina smiled back.

“I thought you’d never ask,” Mamá said.

Derrick Boden is a writer, a software developer, a traveler, and an adventurer. He currently calls New Orleans his home, although he's lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by three cats. Find him at derrickboden.com.