Estelle woke bolt upright with her mouth twisted into a rictus, a scream trapped in her throat. Her hands relaxed unsteadily from the claws she had gripped her pillow with, but her heartbeat continued to race. She focused on her breathing, slowly coming down from the high of terror that had enveloped and suffocated her nightly for the past week.
Ripping the Sleep Dot from her temple, she threw an exasperated glance at her husband. His striking features were softened and childish in sleep, the epitome of peacefulness.
Estelle grumbled, “Time, Alfred?”
It is 6:45, Estelle.
Right on schedule for when she had programmed the Dot to wake her up. Yet she couldn’t help but scrutinize it warily. Finally, she placed it on her beside table in its case and stretched, feeling the tension in her muscles.
“Yes, that would be great.”
Of course. Your coffee will be in the kitchen in thirty-seven seconds. Black. One sugar.
She pulled on her robe and walked to the kitchen, halogen lights humming and activating as she passed them. Her coffee was waiting for her on the sleek marble island. As she sipped, she flipped through her schedule absentmindedly. It would be a light work day: some household chores, two client meetings, and her children’s school day and music lessons. Alfred, their home system, could take care of most of that, but Estelle still liked to do things around the house. She worried sometimes that if she didn’t, her fate would be similar to the poor parents in “The Veldt”.
She watched the news as she finished her coffee. They still had a flatscreen, although her children preferred to use the immersive features. Estelle usually refrained, knowing it gave her terrible hat hair. An infomercial for Sleep Dots was on. No surprise there; it seemed to be permanently airing. Estelle grimaced at the airbrushed spokeswoman. She lounged on a bed piled high with decorative pillows and cozy blankets.
“Sleep Dots, the cure for insomnia and restless sleepers everywhere,” the actress gushed with genuine enthusiasm. She gesticulated at the Sleep Dot on display proudly, beaming with a vividly white smile. “Have you ever spent the night tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep? Sleep Dots are the cure! They are so simple, even a child can use them.” The footage cut to an animated, giggly boy applying his Sleep Dot and drifting off into sleep. His room was quaintly decorated with glowing, stick on stars, a prosaic touch that would appeal to elderly viewers. “With one press of a button, you can instantly fall asleep for as long as you want! Get your full eight hours every night.”
A montage of young and old users came next, but Estelle switched channels. She knew it by heart. The advertisement was what had encouraged her to buy them in the first place, along with rave reviews from her parents. They’d hopped on the bandwagon early, suckered in by those glowing stars and the money-back guarantee.
Rob joined her as she was picking over her eggs, watching the coiffed and helmet-haired news anchor discuss the state of the environment. Grim, although Estelle felt even that was sugarcoating it. Greenhouse gases, air pollutants, rising sea levels, and pollution had half killed Earth years ago. Whole countries became bands of environmental refugees, and governments were ruthless in their efforts to protect their borders. The world was a mess. Although August Phillips was trying to put a positive spin on things, Estelle could see through the propaganda.
“Morning, dear.” Rob kissed her, the routine gesture doing little to soothe Estelle’s nerves.
“Good morning. How did you sleep?” she asked.
“What a question,” he chuckled distractedly, already arranging his breakfast with Alfred’s touchpad system. “I feel like asking that is obsolete, unless you haven’t gotten Sleep Dots. And why wouldn’t you?”
Oatmeal topped with a generous amount of brown sugar appeared quickly on the island, and Rob sat down and tucked in.
“I didn’t have a good sleep, Rob. That’s why I’m asking.”
He looked bemused. “That’s impossible,” he said, in a tone that brooked no room for argument. “The box said that everyone gets a restful, dreamless sleep.” He went back to his oatmeal dismissively, and was in the process of asking Alfred for a cup of earl grey when Estelle cut him off.
“Rob, I’m not making this up. Every night, I’ve been having the most horrible nightmares.”
“Alright, if you say so.” He still sounded unconvinced, but Estelle took even his tacit acceptance as a small victory. “What are your nightmares about?”
“I can’t remember them,” she admitted, twisting her wedding band restlessly around her finger. Rob took in the exhausted defeat in her eyes, the restlessly tapping foot. He looked as though he were on the verge of saying something, and then changed his mind. Concerned husband to indifferent bureaucrat, just like that. Estelle felt her hopes sinking.
“I just don’t know what to say, Estelle. I’ve been having such great sleep since we got Sleep Dots, and so have the kids. It seems like you’re the only one having problems with them.” He didn’t say it, but the unspoken blame hung heavy in the air. Why aren’t you having a good sleep? Maybe it’s your fault.
Robert, you need to leave for work in five minutes.
“Thanks, Alfred,” Robert called in the general direction of the ceiling, and stood up brusquely. “Well, I need to change. Someone’s got to pay the bills.”
Estelle flinched at the barb, but by the time she had thought of a comeback, Rob was already shaved, suited, and reeking of outrageously expensive cologne his secretary had picked out. She might have suspected he was having an affair, except his secretary was an overweight man in his late twenties. Although, it was 2080. She supposed that it was close-minded of her to think that was out of the question. He pecked her on the cheek, leaving her in the kitchen to stew. “Make sure to have Alfred make pot roast tonight, honey.”
The kids were up soon after, and Estelle channeled her frustration into aggressively beating pancake batter. Eric and Callie were huddled around her, arguing about pancake toppings.
“Blueberries!” Callie mumbled, tugging on Estelle’s robe.
“No,” Eric whined, “I want chocolate chips. We never get to have chocolate chips.” He stuck his tongue out at Callie, and Callie took a swipe at him. Estelle told them to agree on one or the other, and Callie and Eric sized each other up. Neither were the type to compromise, but the threat was far from trivial to them. Estelle was reminded of spoon benders by her children’s intense and unflinching staring contest; the only question was, whose opinion was more malleable and susceptible to bending?
She turned back to the batter, and in unison her children called out “blueberries”.
“Good job,” she said, and gave Callie a gentle nudge towards the fridge to grab them. “One batch of blueberry pancakes coming up.”
Once the pair were fed, dressed, and ready for school, she shooed them off to their classroom. Since the COVID epidemic some decades ago, virtual classroom desks had been invented. Each student had a desk within a specified square grid programmed with sensory, visual, tactile, and auditory functions. Once they entered their grid at home, a hologram version of themselves blinked into life in the teacher’s classroom, seamlessly simulating the in-person learning that had been so lacking in prior years. Estelle hung around for a minute, tenderly watching her children greet their teachers and friends, before going to her own home office.
With Rob’s salary, she didn’t work out of necessity but out of some fundamental and half unconscious desire to avoid turning into a stereotypical housewife. She didn’t make nearly as much as Robert, admittedly, and couldn’t afford to be immunized against the toxic levels of air pollution outside their house on her paycheck alone. Still, her earnings were still enough to give her a slim sense of security. Just in case, she would tell herself.
Her meetings went well, and by early afternoon she found herself with some free time. Eric and Cassie wouldn’t be done school for hours yet, and Rob never came home until promptly before dinner.
“Alfred, search for negative Sleep Dot reviews,” she instructed.
Estelle, I’m sorry. There are none.
She frowned. “Alfred, search for side effects of Sleep Dots.”
Side effects include: increased energy, heightened metabolism, weight loss, regular sleep rhythms, longer REM period, and in extreme cases, dizziness.
“That isn’t helpful, Alfred,” she sighed.
My apologies, Estelle. How can I be of more help?
“Nevermind.” Estelle began to pace, irritated and at a loss. How was it possible that no one had been having a bad experience with Sleep Dots but her? Stalking back to her bedroom, she examined her model. It was perfectly round, about the size of a quarter but thicker. Adjusting the dial, she set the Dot for a catnap: fifteen minutes of sleep. Pressing the Dot to her temple, she lay down, and pressed the button. The Dot began to glow a calming blue, and her eyes snapped shut.
Estelle found herself by a river. The water was nacreous and thick, milk white swirls rushing past half visible black rocks. The river called to her, and although the sky was dark and forbidding, she felt serene. She walked into the river, white waves lapping her knees. She could see childhood memories, the dog she’d had as a young girl, the sight of her brother blowing out birthday candles, bleeding out of her skin in scarlet rivulets. Curiously, she watched them go, sinking deep into the river like coins thrown into a wishing well, until they disappeared without a trace. Looking down, she could see more colour dissolving, reminiscent of blood. Just as she realized she had to step out, strong hands pushed her into the river. Her mouth filled with the white water. She tasted honey and blood as she screamed for help.
She was ripped from the dream, trembling with that stricken, silent scream on the tip of her tongue. Her fingers dug into the blanket, and she blinked rapidly, watchful and paranoid.
“Alfred, what is my heart rate?” she panted.
170 beats per minute.
She felt a bleak and humourless triumph at this proof. The nightmares were real, even if they slid away from her cagily. Ripping the Sleep Dot off, she felt an overpowering urge to throw it away. First though, she would tell Rob.
The minutes ticked by slowly, even once her children were finished with school. They had a short break before their piano lessons, which they spent hooked up to the media ports playing war games, complex caps of wires and transmitters covering their blonde curls.
On schedule though, they trudged dutifully into Estelle’s office to the piano. The quiet house filled with scales, arpeggios, and the children’s quiet giggles as their hologram teacher demonstrated how much reach their fingers were capable of. Schubert and Bach took over, gaining momentum and emotion through repetition and gentle coaching.
In her day, there had been no hologram teachers, no keys lit up with the next right notes. Every piece had been burned into muscle memory, so much so that she could still play songs like Fur Elise to this day without sheet music. Although, who had been the boy she’d played her duets with? His face was half formed in her memory, just dark hair and fair skin. Those superficial features were all she had. Perturbed, she hunted for the memory mentally, but failed to recall more.
To distract herself, she arranged for Alfred to make supper, pot roast as requested. She choose to do some of the busywork herself though, peeling potatoes and carrots. At least it kept her mind preoccupied.
When Rob arrived, a rush of acrid air blew into the vestibule. For as long as Estelle could remember, the air pollution had been intolerably bad. Another reason so many of their days were spent indoors: keeping up to date on all of the shots was impractical for her and the kids. Rob turned on the air purifier setting, waiting the requisite five minutes, before stepping into the kitchen.
“Hello, dear,” Estelle called over her shoulder.
“Hello, my love,” he said. His speech was clear, but Estelle could tell he'd been drinking from the epithet he'd used. He wrapped his arms around her from behind, reeking of bourbon and sweat under the cologne. She shrugged him off gently, and told him to go change and wash up.
Despite everything, the meal was pleasant, and they watched a family movie afterwards. At the closing credits, Estelle anticipated the usual back and forth argument: the kids would want to stay up, even though it was past their bedtime. Instead, Rob skillfully and nimbly attached their Sleep Dots and carried them off to their beds.
“Are you sure we should be doing that,” Estelle said, helping tuck them into bed and gently kissing each of her children’s foreheads. “They weren’t even in their pajamas, they haven’t brushed their teeth, and I’m still not convinced that the Dots are good for them.”
“It’s completely safe, Stella. Don’t worry so much. Besides, now we have the night to ourselves. No kids.”
Stroking Eric’s face, so helpless and paralyzed to the world around him, she felt uneasy. Nonetheless, she told herself it would be all right.
Although sleep came effortlessly to her family, Estelle remained wide awake. She couldn’t bring herself to put her Sleep Dot on. Instead, she spent hours turning this way and that, repositioning her pillow and adjusting fruitlessly. Her eyes were still heavy and burning by 6:45 am, when Alfred prepared her coffee. Holding back a yawn with the back of her palm, she stumbled into the kitchen.
‘Two cups today, Alfred. Maybe three.”
Yes, Estelle. Coming right up.
“Thank you, Alfred. What’s on my schedule today?”
You have one client meeting, and it is Gregory’s birthday today.
“Gregory …” Estelle paused. She could feel the weight of that name, the prickle of recognition without truly recognizing it. “Who is that, Alfred?”
Gregory is your brother. My records show that he is turning thirty-six. Gregory’s husband is named Peter. They have one child.
Estelle grabbed onto the countertop, feeling faint. The memory of him was missing, surgically excised out of her memory. Memories of him were there and not there, like the gap when you lose a tooth. The boy she'd played duets with. The boy she’d wrestled with. The man coming to dinner with Ella and Peter. She could remember these things, but with no familial recognition. Her knuckles had turned white, and she had to consciously unclench her hands.
“Alfred, please make it an Irish coffee,” she said faintly.
She felt half asleep and sick to her stomach all day, but she maintained a facade of normalcy. When it came to bedtime however, she insisted to Rob that the children go to bed without their Sleep Dots. “I think you should do the same,” she pleaded.
Rob made a noncommittal noise, and before she could argue further, Rob blindsided her by slapping her Dot on her forehead. “Sorry, hon. You’ve just been so tired.” He clicked the button. Betrayal flickered away like dying embers as sleep had dragged her away swiftly and unwillingly.
Once more, she stood on the riverbank. The water was pearlescent and luminous, beautiful and unearthly. Estelle walked into the river, chilled to the marrow. She could see her memories, leeched away by the gelatinous water, a rainbow of colours and memories slipping through her skin. Someone kicked her legs out from under her, although she could see no one. Knocked flat on her back, she began to sink, the white water gagging her. Honey sweet.
The men came in the night, bypassing the lock codes on the front door. The Sleep Dot Rob had placed on Estelle and the children ensured that no one would see them or hear them, although Rob couldn’t have foreseen that. Estelle’s Dot was pulsing a red light, indicating that her memory removal had been complete. They lifted her into the body bag they’d brought, zipping it up. Using their own Sleep Dot transmitters, they ensured that Rob, Callie, and Eric would forget Estelle. To make her erasure complete, one of them hacked into Alfred’s circuit board, deleting all traces of her.
“Now, we just have to monitor the family. If they don’t notice her absence, the cull can begin,” one of the men said.
“One at a time,” the other replied grimly. “If we’re successful though, it will make all the difference. Overpopulation and pollution, deprogrammed in one fell swoop.”
They left the house with Estelle’s body. It would be the first of many.