They presented Mom with a barrage of bottles, swollen like milk jugs, corked with burnt cardboard. The nurse wore a paper hat, creased inward, with a clipboard in one hand and a clementine in the other. She had an hour, they told her, to scan the reports, bring the bottles to her eyes, sing to the babies dormant behind glass. She left the hospital half an hour after she entered, bottle baby in her elbow crook, receipt in her skirt’s back pocket.
The pricing system is rote, yet somehow still speculative. Babies are awarded a value based on their longevity, their looks, their predicted personality, anything that appears on the atomic-level scanner. Blonde babies are the most expensive. Blue eyes add a two-thousand-dollar surplus. Gene patterns that indicate obedience shoot the price upwards, while any neurodiversity causes it to plummet to nearly zero. The cost used to be fixed, but supply and demand tossed the bottle baby economy into economic entropy. We’re not too wealthy, so our new baby – who we’ve decided to call Lucas – is small, angry, and Chinese.
The nurse handed Mom a pamphlet, which she taped crookedly to the refrigerator door. In his early days, Lucas is treated much like a hunk of raw poultry. He soaks in warm water for several weeks, as his limbs unfurl, his face takes shape, his umbilical cord floats away like bread in tomato soup. We season the water with nutrient packs, bought in bulk from the nearby supermarket. A lightbulb hangs over his tub; casting light over his scrunched fingers for twelve hours per day.
Mom pulls Lucas from the bath at 7:00 a.m. on September 16, which I suppose is now his birthday. The moment his head emerges from the water, he begins to wail. Not a gentle coo, not a miracle cry, a full-out, five alarm, pineapple cake, donkey-on-the-mountain type wail. It shakes the shutters off our windows, turns our pecans into pie, grabs Dad by the collar and dumps him in the backyard. Mom tries everything, rocking and bouncing and steamed milk, but he just won’t shut up. I create a small barricade in my room, made of pillows and stuffed penguins, but Lucas’ cries drive right through it.
Five o’clock the next morning and he’s still going. Lucas has not gotten louder, but he’s definitely shriller, frillier than the night before. Mom and Dad have turned a muddy yellow from the stress. Their fingernails bend away from the noise and the hairs on their head have begun to commit suicide. All three of us have crusts contouring our cheekbones, black smudges beneath our eyes. My oatmeal tastes like tears.
Mom’s on the phone when I get back from school, caressing the receiver with her lips. Across the house, Lucas continues to wail, screeching as if silence would cause the world to stop spinning on its axis. Several moments later Mom taps the handset back into the dial pad. She tells me we need to take Lucas to the hospital. Dad tucks Lucas’ old bottle into a cloth bag, along with a turkey sandwich and a stack of manila folders, before ushering us into the car. Lucas continues to cry.
The doctors say no refunds. Lucas can be returned, but his valuation has dropped significantly. They apologize, say that these malfunctions don’t usually happen, but jab at the waivers Mom signed when she protests. Dad and Mom and the doctors disappear into the room next door, shouting over Lucas, who they’ve left with me. I take him in my arms, lifting his chin beside mine.
Soon Mom and Dad finish their conversation with the doctors. They disappear for a while, then reemerge in the hallway, a handheld cradle hanging below their hips. There’s a baby inside. They wink at it, cover their eyes, bobble their tongues, shower its head with caterpillar fingers. I try to make eye contact with them through the door’s glass pane, but they keep their heads fixated on the exit as they walk away. The baby’s name is Luther.
My name is Theresa.
The doctors come back into the room. They stuff a purple rag into Lucas’ mouth, and he stops crying at last.
Matt Hsu is a junior at San Francisco University High School in San Francisco, California. He works as a poetry/prose editor at Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine and The Formula. Currently he’s working on a new adult novel about a lonely assassin. In his spare time, he enjoys playing tennis and eating dark chocolate.