“He’s not sick,” the doctor said to Braxtin, over her son’s screams. “He’s just colicky.”
Braxtin wondered if she could jam her thumbs straight down the old bastard’s eye sockets without permanently traumatizing the infant on her lap. For just a moment she imagined the hot gush of his blood soaking her dry, ragged cuticles. Then she remembered that a lack of sleep and pre-recorded infant cries were breakdown techniques at secret prisons everywhere. It wasn’t the doctor’s fault that he had just repeated everything she’d heard online and elsewhere about why her baby wouldn’t quit howling. He was probably right. He just didn’t have to go home with Lev.
She willed some measure of self-control into her voice. “I know that. But nothing seems to help.”
“Well,” the doctor said, “I’ve heard very good things about Milk +. The impact on Lev’s diet could work wonders for his sleep schedule, and your sanity.” He smiled, like they were sharing a secret, like he knew that she’d been fantasizing his death just a moment before. “Eberhart-Woodhouse is offering free month-long trials of the drug. It comes with a month’s pass to the Milk + cafes, too.” He held up a plastic keychain in the shape of a rosy pink teardrop. “There’s a chip in here that’ll get you into all of them for a month. Just register online with this number,” he pointed at a series of digits etched on one surface “and you can go anytime you like.”
“I’m not sure how visiting a cafe is going to help my baby,” Braxtin said.
The doctor shrugged. “Eberhart-Woodhouse listened to a panel of mothers before the rollout, and most of them wanted a quiet place to nurse their babies while away from home. And since leakage can be a problem, it only made sense for the firm to offer an alternative. They don’t want house-bound patients, after all.” He smiled. Not for the first time, Braxtin noticed that he had a rather unbelievable tan. “What do you say?”
Tentatively, she took hold of the keychain. The doctor nodded, and turned to his desk. Pen in hand, he wrote the prescription. He paused, and looked at her over the rim of his glasses. “Have you given any thought to what we discussed? About the chip?”
Her smile felt as tired as the rest of her body. “I’m lucky if I get any time to think, these days.”
He nodded. “Right.”
* * * *
Braxtin had no need for the milk bar until a week after starting Milk+. By then, her breasts already felt stretched and sore, and a hot little knot of pain had tightened between her shoulders. But according to the pamphlet inside her free box of Milk +, her new breast milk contained a more even distribution of fats and sugars, thus eliminating the peaks and valleys created by conventional insulin release. Lev fed steadily, cried less, and napped more. Braxtin could have wept with relief.
Steadying Lev’s stroller with one hand with baby bag and her canvas grocery tote hanging from her other elbow, Braxtin swung the keychain before a card-sized black panel and stepped through the softly chiming doors. Like deer troubled by a passing car, the heads of three nursing mothers rose to watch her from their curved, ultra-modern sofas. Despite their differences in height and race, their breasts seemed disproportionately distended and heavy, as though a bad comic book artist’s Oedipal fantasy had come bizarrely and painfully true. Stretch marks like root systems began at their necks and climbed ever downward.
“Hello,” a blonde said. She had a wide face and plump cheeks, with pretty blue eyes and a matching cashmere sweater. A tiny red mark showed the presence of a mini-lab inside her left arm.
Unused to sharing feeding time with anyone but Lev, Braxtin took a moment before responding. “Um, hello.”
“Is this your first time?”
Braxtin nodded. Judging by the size of their babies, these women were regular customers — they were long past any free trial vouchers and probably paid out of pocket. Do they just meet up every day to feed? She noted the presence of three flash-looking television screens, one of which played a soap for two other women and their babies while the latter two carried the same talk show. In one corner of the cafe stood a modest play area for toddlers complete with its own little television. Books lay spine-up on the floor. The children sitting there gave Braxtin and Lev one long, bored look before turning back to their cartoon.
A uniformed server appeared at Braxtin’s elbow. “Please have a seat,” she said. “What can we get you?”
Braxtin sat. The sofa seemed to absorb her, and she smelled lemon verbena linen water. “Just some tea, thanks.”
“Caffeine free, of course,” the server said, nodding at Lev.
“What? Oh. I guess. Sure.”
“Do you have a mini-lab? We can upload the data to your diet plan, no extra charge.”
Braxtin thought of her doctor. “No,” she said.
“No, you don’t want us to upload the data, or no, you don’t have a lab?”
Without looking, Braxtin sensed the gaze of the mothers surrounding her. “No, I don’t have a lab,” she said. “I’d like that tea, though.”
Looking suitably chastened, the server folded up her tray and marched toward the drinks counter. A moment later, Braxtin heard hot water splashing in a cup. When it had arrived, Braxtin lifted Lev from his pram and dandled him on one knee. The unflinching, brazenly curious looks on each of the mother’s faces across from her remained.
“You don’t have a lab?” asked one, a smallish Indian woman in very trendy shoes. Her accent emphasized the “t” in “don’t.”
“No,” Braxtin said, opening her shirt with one hand. Lev squirmed a little, his eagerness plain. “In a minute,” she said to him.
The blonde frowned. Even her eyebrows were pale. “But you take Milk +?”
The women made a collective movement backward. Their eyes met, briefly. The third mother — an expertly-coiffed redhead in a pink tweed skirt suit — said, “Well you should know that Milk + works loads better when you’ve got a lab. The drug and the data really synch up.”
Braxtin took a moment to free up one breast and insert it in Lev’s mouth. A white rime of milk appeared around his lips. She secured her arm under his head, and said: “I don’t think the lab is really necessary. I take vitamins, and I don’t do anything stupid like smoking or drinking. I don’t think some chip in my arm can give me any better advice than that, no matter how accurate it is about my sugars and hormones.”
The blonde’s mouth turned downward, as though she had just seen an expose on electro-shock therapy for kittens. “But,” she said, “how can you do that to your baby?”
Braxtin glanced at Lev. He sucked greedily in rhythmic swallows, and his dark eyes fluttered open briefly with an expression now familiar to her: Are you moving? No? Good. “I’m not doing anything to him,” Braxtin said. “He looks just fine to me.”
The redhead clucked. “You’ll change your mind when you get a look at the insurance premiums for your second baby, if you have one. Babies whose mothers don’t have labs are so expensive. The companies just won’t cover them.”
Braxtin was about to say that both her decision on a second baby and the costs of her health insurance were her own business, thank you very much, when the blonde’s phone rang. Her face paled. To answer it, she had to momentarily pry her little girl away and reach down into a quilted bag printed with tiny pink foxes. Her face reddened as one of her hands searched for the offending accessory. Almost growling, she fished it out, flipped it open, pressed her lips together, and pressed a button with one cruel thumb.
“Your lab?” the Indian woman asked.
Breathing hard through her nose, the blonde nodded. “My serotonin is low.”
Again, the phone rang. She opened the phone again, and silenced it. Shaking her head, she said: “And now my blood pressure’s too high.”
“It calls you?” Braxtin asked.
“Day and night,” the blonde said. “I eat too much ice cream, it calls me. I don’t sleep long enough, it calls me-“
“So it calls you every night?” the Indian woman asked.
Sniffing, the blond nodded. “The baby still isn’t sleeping through the night, so…” She shrugged. “They say I’m high-risk, so they have to keep a close eye on me.”
“For Christ’s sake, why?” the redhead asked. “You’re always eating that healthy organic shit.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “My mother had clinical depression.” She shook the phone. “Stupid thing thinks I have post-partum.”
Braxtin’s arm tingled, so she shifted Lev’s weight a little. “And do you?”
“Of course I don’t!”
The phone rang again, and this time the blond picked it up as though to throw it before staring hard at it and shutting it off entirely. She dropped it back into her bag and adjusted her baby’s dress. “How can someone like you ask me that, anyway? You don’t even have a lab, and you’re not really on Milk +. If you’re not willing to do everything in your power to keep him healthy, then you must not really care.”
Braxtin thought of slapping her. She played it out in her mind, saw her hand closing down over those rosy cheeks so puffy and round with baby weight, saw the surprise and hurt on the other mother’s face. But the woman sitting in front of her probably couldn’t control her own feelings about anything, with the internal three-way collision of sleep deprivation, chemical imbalance, and constant surveillance derailing her. She probably couldn’t control her words, either. Then again, Braxtin was in much the same situation, and someone foolish enough to provoke her was likely too stupid to breed. This woman would get slapped down one way or another, Braxtin decided. Best to leave her alone.
Finally, Braxtin smiled and said: “If I wanted a serving of judgment with my tea, I would have visited my mother.”
The tension dissolved. They all laughed. The Indian woman threw a towel over her shoulder and switched her son into a burping position, and the redhead started readying her car-seat. “Post-partum’s nothing to worry about,” she said, gently letting her baby rest in the seat. “You just take the drugs, and that’s it.” She sat up. “I get those phone calls too.”
She withdrew her phone and flipped it open. A moment later, she held it out for them to see. “I save the messages.”
The other women avoided the phone, so Braxtin took it between two fingers and looked at the screen. All the messages within the folder were marked “Eberhart-Woodhouse.” Braxtin rolled her eyes. “The drug and the lab are made by the same people, natch.”
The redhead said: “Just look at how many there are. They’re completely annoying, so I just ignore them.”
Braxtin nodded. She decided to start with the oldest messages first, so she scrolled down and started reading.
CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR NEW ARRIVAL! GIVE YOUR BABY THE BEST – ASK YOUR PEDIATRICIAN ABOUT EBERHART-WOODHOUSE’S OTHER PRODUCTS FOR MOTHER AND BABY.
“So they spam your phone,” Braxtin said. “Can’t you get them to unsubscribe you?”
The redhead shook her head. “No. It’s part of the Terms of Service for the Eberhart-Woodhouse site. You agree to the messages when you sign up.”
Braxtin moved through the other messages. Some of them were tips on getting babies to sleep. Others were advertisements for creams that reduced stretch marks or national statistics on when mothers resumed having sex. The vast majority were messages like: “HAVING A LOW-CALCIUM DAY AGAIN? BUILDING BONE MASS NOW PREVENTS OSTEOPOROSIS LATER – TRY EBERHART-WOODHOUSE’S NANO-MINERAL COMPLEX,” or “EBERHART-WOODHOUSE: FOR MOTHERS WHO LOVE BABIES.”
She scrolled further, until she hit:
EVERYONE FEELS BLUE. CHANGES IN APPETITE AND SLEEPING PATTERNS ARE SIGNS OF SOMETHING IMPORTANT. TELL YOUR DOCTOR IF THESE CHANGES PERSIST.
HAVING TROUBLE GETTING UP IN THE MORNING? TRY ESTABLISHING A REGULAR FEEDING SCHEDULE FOR YOU AND YOUR BABY.
YOUR FAMILY NEEDS YOU. IF YOU LOVE YOUR BABY, GET HELP. TRY EBERHARDT-WOODHOUSE’S NEW TRANXITAL – THE BABY-SAFE ANTI-DEPRESSANT.
“You just ignore these?” Braxtin asked.
“Of course,” the redhead answered. “They just come constantly. I mean, I’m busy. I have a family, a career, a house to manage.” She sighed, and for a moment Braxtin saw the way exhaustion pulled at her eyes and her mouth. In the corner of her vision, she saw the blonde rise and begin bouncing her baby, moving aimlessly around the cafe.
“Right.” Braxtin looked at the message before her. It was dated a month ago. She continued reading:
THANK YOU FOR SHARING YOUR INSURANCE INFORMATION WITH EBERHART-WOODHOUSE’S “MINI +” SERVICE. YOUR INSURANCE FIRM ADVISES US THAT PATIENTS DEMONSTRATING A STEADFAST REFUSAL TO SEEK TREATMENT FOR POST-PARTUM DEPRESSION OR OTHER MOOD DISORDERS WILL RECEIVE AN INCREASE IN PREMIUMS.
MONEY WORRIES GOT YOU DOWN? FOR A FREE COUPON FOR 10% OFF YOUR FIRST PRESCRIPTION OF TRANXITAL, PLEASE VISIT WWW.TRANXITAL.COM
HAVE YOU HAD AT LEAST TWO SUICIDAL THOUGHTS THIS WEEK? HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT KILLING YOUR BABY? POST-PARTUM IS NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF. TRY TRANXITAL, FROM EBERHART-WOODHOUSE – FOR MOTHERS WHO LOVE BABIES.
Just then, Lev bit her. She snapped the phone shut and looked down at him. Despite his unformed features, Braxtin could have sworn she saw a reproving look there. His faint black eyebrows knit as though to say: You didn’t forget about me, did you?
“I get you,” she said.
“Oh, I know,” the redhead said, obviously thinking the words were intended for her ears. “I mean, it’s just criminal.”
“You’re right, it is,” the blonde said. Braxtin turned, just in time to see the fairer woman, her face hot and pink, stand up with her baby on one hip. “How come you get so many messages? Aren’t you following directions?” She took a step forward. “Don’t you love your baby at all?”
Everyone in the cafe froze. Distantly, Braxtin heard the sounds of expletives bleeped from talk show conversation, and loud, impossibly wet kissing from the soap opera. “You little bitch,” the redheaded woman said. “How dare you say that to me? You’re just a baby yourself. Where’d you get knocked up? Prom? Are you too stupid to figure out a goddamn condom, too?”
The blonde blinked away sudden tears. “Shut up! I saw those messages! You’re going to kill your baby!”
“You stupid cunt-“
They turned to her. “Have some milk with your tea,” Braxtin said, and squeezed.
A chain of white drops leapt from Braxtin’s overfull breast to the other woman’s suit. Braxtin tightened her grip and milk arced across the space between them, her breast as heavy and in need of release as a hot August water balloon. Her hand tilted and she adjusted the trajectory of milk. Briefly, she wondered if she could inscribe her initials, the way boys sometimes did in snow. But then the shrieking started.
“You’re bleeding!” The blonde pointed. “You’re bleeding on us!”
Braxtin looked down. Sure enough, a scarlet thread had tinged her milk just the littlest bit pink. As though fully cognizant of his complicity in the spread of bloody milk, Lev offered her a happy baby grin.
“Your father was a biter, too, you know,” Braxtin said, and put her swollen, aching projectiles away.
The blonde stared at her with pinched lips. “You’re crazy! You need professional help!”
Braxtin grabbed the stroller. She lay Lev down in it. The blonde put her baby down and grabbed the front of it. “I’m calling Child Protective Services on both of you-“
Braxtin’s baby bag swung out and caught her in the jaw. The combined weight of books, bottles, diapers, toys, pacifiers, extra clothes, creams and medicines silenced her. She staggered backward. Braxtin held the bag aloft, its soft bulk trembling at the end of her outstretched arm. She felt light. Something in her had vanished — the pain, the frustration, the anxiety about whether she was doing things right. The woman in front of her launched herself forward and Braxtin brought down the bag once again, its weight whooshing down toward the woman’s face. Squeaky toys bounced away upon impact. They scattered across the floor, rolling under chairs and sofas. Braxtin barely noticed. She had been holding back for so long. It felt good to let go.
Braxtin calmly shouldered her canvas grocery bag, and rolled the stroller over the other woman’s lumpy, whimpering shape. The other women shrank away. In his stroller, Lev seemed to almost cheer. His fat hands clapped together.
“You know,” Braxtin said, as the doors chimed behind her, “your dad’s a little late on his child support.”
Madeline Ashby’s work has been published in FLURB, Nature, and Escape Pod. She recently completed a Master’s thesis on anime and cyborg culture, and is now participating in a program on strategic foresight and innovation at the Ontario College of Art and Design. You can find her at escapingthetrunk.net, and on Twitter @madelineashby.