No Do-Overs

A Sci-Fi Short Story written by Andrew Rucker Jones

No Do-Overs

By Andrew Rucker Jones

Andrew Rucker Jones is a former IT dweeb and American expatriate living in Germany with his Georgian wife and their three children. His greatest literary achievement to date is authoring ninety-eight iCloud reminders for every household chore from cleaning sinks to checking smoke detectors.

Author Website: http://selfdefeatistnavelgazing.wordpress.com/

Listen to more of his stories: https://talltaletv.com/tag/andrew-rucker-jones/

 

My wife stumbled through the kitchen door and asked, “Did you remember to brainwash the kids last night?” She shielded her eyes from the early morning sunshine streaming through the bay window as if it would turn her to dust.

“Of course, Ramona dear.” I didn’t say, “Because I’m a responsible parent,” but I was certain she heard it in my voice. After last night, there was no way I was handing her that victory. I washed them the first time during a midnight bathroom break in reruns of American Gladiators—the original, of course, not that reboot abomination. I washed them again when I retrieved my holey, mushroom-tinted bedsheet and sacked on the couch. My wife hated that sheet, which was pristine white when we first made love on it in college. I kept it locked in my bottom desk drawer and brought it out on special occasions: divorce threats, visits from her mother, and family nights out.

“And washing them was your paroxysm of parenting for the month.” She said it like she had fallen asleep late, practicing, with the p’s hurling spittle onto my empty pillow. Only factual arguments were worth it, not this he-said–she-said stuff, so I let it slide. Black coffee slopped onto the counter as she poured herself a cup. “This will play hell with their schooling, but—”

“—better a healthy child longer than a traumatized adult faster,” I finished. It was the motto of the Domestic Harmony for Minors Through Selective Memory Retention program—though most called it the Better Brainwashing Bureau. Too bad the initiative came too late to protect the two of us, but our children would grow up in a happy home. “They have to move out eventually, though. In the Middle Ages, apprenticeships started at ten.”

“They’re still not the oldest children at their scholastic level that I know of. Mothers talk about their worries.”

“And then gossip.” Men didn’t waste time on parenting conversations—we did well enough, and the Washer took care of the rest.

“The Sauders’ children are five years behind in their schooling. Five years. They must be awful parents.”

“Or they’re perfectionists and brainwash their kids over every raised eyebrow or pursed lip between them.”

My wife leveled her I-pity-your-limited-mind look at me. “Jeremy, perfectionism and bad parenting go hand in hand.”

“Then what’s your excuse?” I looked pointedly at the puddle of coffee my wife had spilled and ignored. Then I heaved myself off my stool and poured a cup, also black. Our common ground began and ended with our taste in coffee.

“I think I should ask you that question.”

At that, my teeth clenched, but I took a deep breath and patted my belly. She wouldn’t get to me that easily. I chugged half the warm, bitter coffee in one gulp. “A questionnaire about the kids came from the Brainwashers. I’ll forward it to you.”

She plucked at the fifteen-year-old, black, Burning Man t-shirt stretched across my gut. “Not if you want to eat tonight, buster. I have to shop and cook. Besides, they’re your kids too.”

“But you’re better at that kind of thing.”

Ramona took another sip, wrinkled her nose, and dumped the rest of her coffee into my mug. So much for common ground. “Jeremy, it’s that new regulation. If we don’t fill it out, or if we score poorly, they take the Washer away, and we’re back to Stone Age parenting.”

That was a sobering thought. The questions were probably like, “If your child were an animal, what color parachute would she have?” Questions no one knew the right answers to, but the Brainwashers would interpret against us. “All right,” I sighed. “We’ll tackle it tonight. Together.”

My wife poured cereal and milk into three bowls. Not four. “Kids! Breakfast!”

Floorboards creaked and feet thumped above our heads. My wife hissed, “Behave!” as Ben tumbled down the stairs. Kristin crept behind him.

“Good morning, darlings!” Ramona said. “I poured your favorite cereal!”

“Cinnamon Marshmallow Swirls? Thanks, Mom!” Ben pulled a stool up under his chubby behind and devoured his large bowl of cereal with great, slurping shovels of his spoon.

Kristin, our littler one, ate without a word. She clung to her dolly and looked out the window.

I steered my wife to the hall where pictures hung of us with dust-obscured smiles. Surround your children with artifacts of love, we had learned, and Ramona clung to it. “We talked about guilt-feeding. They don’t remember you’re guilty, so you’re sabotaging us both by tipping them off. And they’ll get fat.”

Ramona shook herself loose and crossed her arms. “I know. Force of habit. Ben will lengthen out during his next growth spurt, and Kristin eats like a sparrow.”

“God help us should we lose the Washer because of your—”

“Mom! Dad!” Ben called. “Aren’t we eating together?” Ramona and I gave each other stern looks then walked into the kitchen, all smiles.

“Of course, Ben,” I said. “We always do, right?”

Kristin tugged Ramona’s hand and patted the stool next to hers. My wife sat and squeezed our daughter before eating her own cereal.

“Dad, aren’t you going to eat?” Ben asked through a mouthful of cereal.

“I guess I’m just not hungry, sport.” Instead of joining my family at the table, I leaned against the counter, where Ramona’s puddle of warm coffee soaked through the back of my sweatpants. “Or at least your mother thinks I’m not. Don’t talk with your mouth full.” I turned on my daughter to discourage further questioning. “What are you learning in school today, honey?”

Kristin shrugged and poked at her cereal.

“Have you looked at the lesson plan, sweetie?”

Kristin nodded.

“Was one of those lessons how to verbalize?”

Kristin pretended to feed her doll.

“Is your mouth glued closed?”

My wife’s eyes narrowed and she put an arm around our daughter. “Kristin doesn’t want to talk right now, Jeremy. Ben, what are you doing today?” We both knew the answer. It was the same as the last two days. The schooling software repeated the previous lesson after a washing.

I yawned and looked out the window while Ben rambled. Rot had claimed two posts from the backyard fence. They splintered and leaned away from each other. The two rails between them collected dew in the grass. I guess I knew how my day looked. There was one good thing about my weight: digging the shovel into our clay-dense soil was easier.

“—school system expects too much,” Ben finished his thought.

Mastering basic math was expecting too much? He would still be living at home at thirty! “If you apply yourself, son—”

But Ramona spoke over me. “Indeed it does.”

We glared at each other.

“Ramona my love—” my tone bounced like a grenade, “—don’t you think a little elbow grease is necessary for life’s tough assignments?”

My wife fixed her bayonet-smile. “Jeremy dearest, don’t you think society places too much pressure on children to grow up?”

“Would you have humanity devolve into abject sloth, light of my life?”

“Would you have us slave to an early death, husband mine?”

“What if Einstein had found Relativity too much work, Ramona?”

“What if Einstein had never vacationed, Jeremy?”

“Do you know he took vacations?”

“Do you know he didn’t?”

“Are Mommy and Daddy arguing?” Kristin asked at the edge of a whisper. Ben shrugged and continued stuffing himself.

Now she talks,” I muttered.

“No! No, no, no, no, no!” My wife put an arm each around their shoulders. “We were just …”

“… playing verbal tennis.”

“Do you hear that, kids? It’s a game your father and I play sometimes. Adults play, too, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” said Ben, “but I don’t think this one—” he jabbed his spoon at Kristin, “—knows yet just how grownups play.”

My wife’s cheeks took on a light pinkish hue, and she stood. “Ben! Your father and I do not play that way.” Her blush went from pink to clown nose crimson. “I—I mean, that’s not what I meant. Go start school now, both of you. If you’re good, we’ll have cherry pie for dessert tonight.” The children scuttled off, Kristin stroking her doll’s hair and whispering in its ear while she watched me.

“Rewarding with food? Tsk, tsk.” I finished the children’s cereal. Waste not, want not.

Ramona shrugged at her own minor infraction. “Do you think that counts as witnessing ‘domestic disharmony’? Tonight, should we maybe …?” She hummed low, like the Washer clipped under the children’s bed frames. Simple installation. Simple removal. When the BBB correlated our questionnaire answers with their logs of Washer usage, was frequent or occasional use better? There was no way to know.

“We weren’t arguing, just like we said. We only asked questions.”

“Yes, that’s true. And we asked them respectfully.”

“Not an unkind word between us,” I said. “And thanks to my quick thinking, it looked like a game.”

“Your quick thinking? I reassured our children the way we were taught.”

“You got there first, Ramona, so I let you. It would be suspicious to pounce on them together and make sure they understood that no, no, Mommy and Daddy never fight.”

“We learned reassurance must come from both parents.”

“Government-mandated parenting classes aren’t infallible. The teachers are paid squat and blindly recite their script, which was written by childless academics raised on biographies of Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.”

“Says the man of facts, logic, and the blessed Scientific Method.”

I rolled my eyes and took a final gulp of the lukewarm coffee before I smacked the mug on the counter. The Scientific Method had nothing to do with this.

“But are you sure we shouldn’t wash them? We don’t want permanent damage.”

I laid my hands on Ramona’s shoulders, which she tolerates when she feels unsure. “We’ll observe them today. We probably ought to for the questionnaire, anyway. If we see warning signs, we’ll bake them tonight and have fresh gingerbread children to mold tomorrow. Again.”

“Please don’t say it that way, Jeremy.”

I dropped my hands and shrugged. “Would you prefer ‘we’ll zap them right back to yesterday’?”

My wife shuddered.

“Well then. I’ll watch Pugsley, and you get Wednesday.“

“Jeremy, that’s horrible!”

“Oh, don’t get so upset. It’s just a little joke, and they can’t hear us. You have to admit, the likeness is uncanny. Kristin just needs to decapitate her doll.”

My wife shot me a dirty look, grabbed her shopping list, and stormed out the door.

This would be simple enough. I didn’t need to hang over Ben’s shoulder today, because he was an easy target. Ramona spoiled him, and it showed.

Two fenceposts waited outside for my tender loving care.

#

The savory smell of pot roast and baked potatoes permeated the house; Ramona’s third call to dinner ate through walls, too, the vocal equivalent of hydrochloric acid. Probably time to sit down with the family again.

Ramona bore a serving platter to the table with a large cut of beef surrounded by steamed carrots and covered in gravy.

“Smells great, Mom!” Ben speared a carrot before my wife had set the platter on the table.

“Thank you, Pug—um, Ben.”

I winked at Ramona, but she pursed her lips. She served Ben only as much as she put on Kristin’s plate.

Between mouthfuls, Ben said, “I beat the wolf-spider level of Mutant Arachnids Galore. That took a lot of work.”

Now, a cat can’t help but pounce on a bird that strolls right by—it’s instinct. “So, you applied elbow grease to achieve a goal, right son?”

Ben’s eyed hopped between Ramona and me like an injured sparrow. “Yeah, I guess.” He stabbed a large piece of carrot off the serving platter and stuffed it whole in his mouth.

“And tell me now, Ben,” I leaned forward, “did you finish your schoolwork as well?”

Chewing and swallowing absorbed his concentration for some time, but when he looked up, I still waited. “Some of it.”

Ramona took the hint. “After dinner, you will finish all of your homework.”

“But Mom, it’s so hard—”

“I don’t want to hear it, Ben.”

He slouched and picked at his food.

“Now, Kristin,” Ramona said, “You memorized a poem for school, didn’t you? Recite it for your father, dear.”

Kristin sing-songed her way through two stanzas about ducks. It was an easy win for my wife—Kristin had memorized the same poem flawlessly three days in succession due to the brainwashings.

“And you recited it with such feeling, munchkin!” my wife said. “I checked on her progress, Jeremy: she reads and writes far above average for her scholastic level. And math is easy for you too, isn’t it, sweetie?”

Kristin nodded.

“Do you know what you want to be when you grow up? I think engineer or journalist would be a good match. What do you think?”

Kristin shrugged.

“Well, you have plenty of time to think about it. Just pick something worthy of your talents is all I ask.” Ramona savored a bite of meat as if it were filet mignon and she were a corporate raider who had just emptied my pension fund.

My fork clattered to my plate and I smacked my hands on the table. “All right, time to finish your homework, Ben. Kristin, go … finish War and Peace, I guess. Mommy and I have business to attend to.”

“Wait, children! Does anyone want cherry pie?”

“Sure, Mom!” Ben jumped up and got the cookie dough ice cream from the freezer. Ramona intercepted him and replaced it.

“Does one have to be a good little child to have pie?” I inquired in my best please-sir-may-I-have-more voice.

“Aw, don’t worry about it,” Ben said. “You deserve pie, ’cause you’re a good little Daddy.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” I deadpanned. That garnered a scowl from over Ramona’s shoulder as she sliced the pie. She tried to serve, but the piece didn’t cross the distance to the plate well.

“I made the crust too thin.”

“I’m sure it tastes great.” Ben’s leg bounced, and his fat quaked from cheeks to thighs like a warning tremor from Mt. Vesuvius.

Ramona finished scooping the disintegrated slice into an inarticulate red blob on the plate and handed it to our son, who snatched it along with a dessert fork.

“Have fun with your ‘business,’ ” Ben called from the stairs.

“Kristin, do you want—” my wife turned. Kristin had slunk out of the kitchen, but her doll lay on the floor near the table. I shrugged. Ramona served another two slices with irritated clanks of the pie knife, then threw mine down before me in classic sassy-roadside-cafe-waitress-in-a-dead-end-job fashion. “The crust on your side is burned. Enjoy.” She stabbed her pie and, when that didn’t work, scooped it instead. “What did you observe today?” The “this is all your fault” was implied.

“Um, not much. He mostly kept to himself, and I mended the fence. Turns out the posts aren’t rotted enough to make it easy, but it took me a long time to figure that out. In the end, I hammered the rails to the posts. It’ll hold for a little while.”

My wife glared at me the way she does when I suggest replacing my riding mower with a robotic lawn mower. “You didn’t observe him at all.”

“Now, that’s not true. I came in for water and he was getting a plateful of cookies and a soda. He seemed fine. He was excited to get back to Mutant Arachnids Galore.”

“Fat lot of help that is.” She shoveled pie into her mouth, and her lips puckered. “It’s too sweet. The sugar came out of the sack in a rush.”

“It tastes fine to me. What about Kristin?” I picked up the doll and swiveled its head Exorcist-style. “You couldn’t have observed much given the housework you did.”

“The only time you notice the housework is when it serves your own purpose.”

There was no point in being drawn into that fight. “Well?”

My wife grimaced through another bite of pie. “Not much. After her lessons, she played with her doll. I’m not sure I can finish this.” She delicately placed her fork on the plate, tines down.

“It tastes fine. You’re just disappointed.”

The doll’s hair was tangled, so Ramona smoothed it, then sat the doll on the table and cradled it in her bosom. “Maybe I really am. I guess it’s not that bad. I can hardly taste the burned crust.”

“And some of us find a hint of charring adds character.”

“The sugar is a bit much, though.”

“There are no objective measures of how much sugar is too much. I would be happy to finish your slice for you.”

She slid her plate across the table. “Well, there are no do-overs in baking.” Then she shrugged and, still holding Kristin’s doll, brought the entire pie tin for me. “Better you than Ben. You might as well bring it to bed with you.”

At least I was sleeping in my bed again tonight. I retrieved my tablet from the counter and licked a bit of cherry filling off my index finger. “I guess it’s time to see whether the BBB is going to throw us to the wolves.”

“Meaning our children?” My wife frowned, and I heard the couch and my mushroom bedsheet beckoning.

“Your words, not mine.”

I logged in to the BBB’s site, which featured cartoonishly happy images of children anywhere they could be crammed between text, and pulled up the questionnaire. They wouldn’t actually take the Washer away, would they? That would be the opposite of everything they stood for. It had to be a scare tactic to ensure cooperation. Then again, if word got out no one lost their Washer, the tactic wouldn’t work, so they had to make a public example of someone. What were the chances it would be us? It felt like sixth grade art class, when I had no idea how the teacher graded, but a fail would ruin me.

But when I scanned down the list of questions, I saw no signs of animals, parachutes, or other obtuse psychological paraphernalia. “Hey, this is easy. We just have to check off any symptoms of childhood trauma they display, and the list is the same one from parenting class. I think. I’ll read them off, and you holler if anything applies. Violence or aggression.”

My wife gave me a hurry-up handroll and leaned in to look. I tilted the tablet toward me. “Skip anything that would land them or us at the police precinct.”

Violence and aggression could be more subtle than that, and the Better Brainwashing Bureau would already know about a visit to the police. But whatever. “Difficulty in school. Hard to tell, we wash them so often.”

“But day to day, they have no problems.”

“What about Mr. I-finished-some-of-my-homework?”

Those lush lips I thought I had fallen in love with years ago went scythe-thin. “He just needs to apply himself.”

It was as close to “you were right” as I would ever get. I won that round. “Overuse of humor. Ha! Our kids aren’t funny unless we laugh at them.”

Ramona squeaked with indignation and was about to say something.

“Just kidding! See? I’m the only one here with a sense of humor. Let’s keep moving. Overeating.” I checked the box. “And we know where he gets it. I told you the guilt-feeding would haunt you.” I took another bite of pie.

“Says the guy fifty pounds overweight.” Her cheeks puffed like potatoes, and she crossed her eyes.

I stopped chewing. Why had I never thought of that? Was Ben’s weight really my fault? I dropped my dessert fork. “I think he’s just on the high end of the scale for his height. And that wouldn’t be trauma, anyway.” I unchecked the box. “Reticence.”

“Bingo.” Ramona leaned over and stabbed the touchscreen with a nail gnawed to the quick before I could whisk it out of her reach. “No wonder when you badger her and get aggressive when she does talk.”

After all these years, I’m still amazed my wife can find fault with me while ignoring her own failures. “Who wouldn’t let her get a word in edgewise at the dinner table?”

“She recited a whole poem, for crying out loud.” Her brow furrowed, and she rotated the doll’s arms up and down. “And she told us she wanted to be an engineer, didn’t she?”

“That last was you. You’re always talking for her.”

“But, well … she was a placid baby. Maybe she’s naturally reserved.”

“Still waters run deep and all that.” I unchecked the box and zipped through the rest of the list. “Nothing else pops out at me.”

“So … we’re clear?”

“No smoking gun. Our kids are fine.”

“Should we brainwash them for safety’s sake tonight?”

I placed a hand across both of hers to stop her fidgeting. “That would be the third time in a row. They have to get on with their lives.”

Ramona sighed. “Modern parenting is so hard.”

“To wash or not to wash. That is the question.” With a tap, I submitted the questionnaire to the BBB and got another couple of smiling kids and a circus-lettering “Thank You!” in return. Marketing had always galled me—real kids simply don’t smile that much.

“How did our parents’ generation deal with the consequences of their bad parenting? They broke their children, but were powerless to fix them.”

“Present company excepted, of course.”

“Oh, we turned out fine. But lots of others didn’t. It’s almost emotional genocide perpetrated by one generation against the next.”

“Fortunately, my love, those days are over. Modern technology allows us to patch together the illusion of model parents, much like Dr. Frankenstein, but without the ugly seams, and we raise flawless children.” I plucked the last bit of cherry pie off Ramona’s plate by the crust and popped it into my mouth. It tasted perfect to me.

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