At Your Convenience

Nancy Nguyen | Fiction

Old Lien wanted a son so badly she decided to make one. She found a do-it-yourself kit on eBay. Her sisters thought she was crazy for spending a chunk of her savings on a scam, a dream that died because it was wasted. Lien, however, was no fool. The seller had 98 percent positive feedback, and she had read all 39 verified reviews. “Amazing seller!” they said. “This works great. Highly recommend!!” And in two weeks, a box the size of a cooler arrived on her porch. Lien made the mistake of trying to pick it up and nearly threw out her back. The seller had warned her about the weight, as he usually only sold enough material for babies or small children. He also warned her about the difficulty in creating something full-grown, but work was what Lien’s muscles knew best. 

Lien pushed the box into her house by scooting it with her right foot, her strong foot. She pushed it until it was in the middle of her kitchen. After locking the door and closing the blinds, Lien used her sharp thumb nail to cut the tape and took out the instruction booklet, small dark bottles of ingredients, glass beakers covered in bubble wrap, a funnel, an inflatable kiddie pool (Lien had expressed concern over not having a bathtub), and eight paint cans, which explained the heavy weight.  The cans were without the usual paint labels and replaced with thick marker on masking tape. “Condensed FleshTM,” it read. 

Lien worked half the time recommended, laboring for the entire night and much of the morning. The tasks were not unfamiliar as she poured, stirred, and worked the mixture after the Condensed FleshTM with water became more malleable in the kiddie pool. The only difficult part was deciding what to put in the drawstring pouch that was to go in her son’s chest, where his heart was supposed to be. Lien eventually chose objects that represented her best accomplishments: a copy of her GED diploma folded into a square, a yellowed receipt from her first sale at her convenience store, and her late mother’s ruby ring, which Lien had managed not to lose coming to America. 

More than anything, Lien didn’t want her son to resemble her. She had come to look unremarkable in her old age, but when she was younger, she had been the plainest of her sisters. Her mother had tried to massage Lien’s face, so that it was smaller and less round, pinch her nose, so that it was less bulbous. Lien’s worst quality was her under bite and consequential habit of bowing her head to make her chin less noticeable. So, Old Lien modeled her son after a realtor named Johnny Tam, who posed in a real estate ad in the Vietnamese newspaper. He had a good dimpled smile, and in a gray suit with his arms crossed, he seemed like the kind of man who provided. 

After she molded and shaped her son to her satisfaction, the water in his flesh evaporated, leaving skin that was softer than silicone. He looked uncomfortable: his legs spilled over one side, his feet splayed in a plie, and the crown of his head rested on the kitchen tile, making his chin point to the sky. It was time to incant the words to galvanize the Condensed FleshTM, but first, Lien retrieved a pillow and blanket from the nearby closet. Even when he was covered, Lien waited a few more minutes, nervousness gripping her heart. 

“I will love you,” Lien said, her voice trembling. “I will care for you. I will protect you.” 

In an instant, his eyebrows miraculously furrowed, and he took a deep breath, as if waking from a long sleep. Lien’s ears warmed. He opened his eyes and squinted into the kitchen light. Then, he looked at her, his eyebrows still furrowed, as if Lien had done something to offend him. To her relief, his eyebrows smoothed and raised into a more innocent expression. 

“You must be my mother,” he said in Vietnamese, and Lien was thankful he spoke with the accent from the south. 

“Yes,” Lien said. “You are my son. My blessing.” 

“Hmm,” he said, pressing his lips together. “And what’s my name?” 

“Johnny,” she said before she could stop herself. 

“Hmm,” he said, and Lien felt guilty for not thinking of another name for him but decided to throw out the newspaper with the recycle. “Johnny,” he considered. “What kind of man am I?’ 

Now, it was her turn to think. She looked down at her son, who was someone she didn’t know, someone she had just met. 

“You are strong and protective,” she said. “And a very good businessman.” 

“Okay.” He yawned. “I can be those things.”  

Lien helped him to the pullout sofa in the living room. The sun was rising. The birds were beginning to chirp outside her window, but Old Lien rewarded her own hard work with sleep. As she lay on her pillow, her eyes closed, Lien decided motherhood was going to be easy. 


There were very few people Lien could depend on. She had come alone to America 40 years ago and worked her young body into knots and sore joints to save money and sponsor her four younger sisters, but her sisters seemed to have forgotten. Their respect for her dwindled to strings because Lien had opened a convenience store instead of marrying and having children, like the rest of them. So, when it came to Lien, they often posed their opinions as concern. A week before Johnny was created, the sisters had convened at Minh’s house in Claremont. Minh was the second oldest, and after the divorce from her optometrist husband last year, she had been hosting gatherings at her house, which she had received out of the settlement. 

“It isn’t right,” Minh said, pinching the pendant on her necklace. It had three small diamonds arranged in a triangle. “It’s just not what nature intended.” 

“Yes,” Loan, the middle child, said. “I agree.” The younger two, Bao and Thao, nodded. 

“Some things shouldn’t be that easy,” Minh said. “Lien, you don’t understand children. You can’t help how they come out into the world.” She brought her cup of tea to her mouth but didn’t sip. “I don’t want you to do something you’ll sorely regret.” 

“Fortunately,” Lien said, her voice quavering despite herself, “my decision is really none of your concern.” 

They were quiet for a moment, but they went on to talk about the cousin who had a bad Botox procedure and how a corner of her mouth had become downturned. 

Sometimes, Lien did not recognize her own family. Her sisters had become too concerned with appearances as they’d gotten older—Minh especially. Minh, the one Lien used to be jealous of for her good looks and charm, had become the most pitiful. Every month, she dyed her hair auburn with bright orange highlights. It was no secret Minh walked with a cane for her hip, but when people were around, she always hid it in the pantry or under the stairs. Also, Minh had stopped speaking to her lawyer daughter after she eloped with a woman. As for her son, he still lived in Minh’s house, and despite his unemployment, Peter spent very little time at home unless he needed food or money. 

“Why exactly are you doing this?” Minh asked. Her sisters peered at Lien again, so Lien looked down at her wringing hands. “Is it because you’re lonely? If you are, I can have Peter go to your house to keep you company.” Minh’s eyes rounded the same way they had when she had suggested Peter work at Lien’s store. Lien, however, let him go shortly after hiring him because he would frequently play hooky or steal twenties out of the register. “Tell me what you want,” Minh insisted. 

“Clothes,” Lien said. “Give me whatever clothes Peter doesn’t wear anymore. My son will need them.” 


Lien sat up at dawn. Johnny, whom Lien had let rest for 24 hours, groaned and pursed his lips, but he eventually roused from sleep. Despite their general unhelpfulness, Lien’s sisters had told her a few useful things about raising children. They had advised to set a strict precedent, to handle her son with a firm hand. Children, after all, were drawn to what they wanted more than what they needed. So, Lien instructed Johnny to brush his teeth in circular motions and wash the corners of his eyes, but she felt awkward telling all this to her son, who was not a child. “I must be like this,” Lien said, “to teach you the right way to live.”

Johnny cleared his throat and dried his face on a hand towel. “Of course, Mother,” he said. “And I must be a good son and learn quickly.” 

Lien made her son breakfast of eggs on rice. The rice came out soggy because she was used to making one serving and overestimated the water. Johnny, however, didn’t seem to mind. He ate quickly, almost alarmingly fast. He seemed to swallow whole spoonfuls of food, though Lien had spent hours carefully crafting each molar and incisor, and she reminded herself not to let him sleep for too long again. Lien gently coaxed him to slow down, lest he choke on his food, and she smiled at how easily her motherly instincts came to her. As she fixed more breakfast, Lien gave him the newspaper to read, which he immediately became engrossed after finding the business section. If not for Peter’s gym shorts and white tee-shirt with yellow armpit stains, Johnny almost looked like a proper man. 

“Mother,” he said, his brows scrunched, “there are many words here I don’t know.” He put a finger on an article. “What does extortion mean?” 

Lien thought for a moment. She had heard of this word before, but the meaning of it escaped her. “My son,” she said, placing a plate of eggs on rice on the paper. “Don’t worry too much. I don’t always know either.” 

“If I want to be a good businessman, I must know about business.” 

“You will learn,” she said. “I will teach you.” 

He thought about this, a finger to his lips. “But you just said you don’t know all the words,” he said. “Isn’t there someone else who can teach me? Someone more knowledgeable?” From the way he tilted his head, Lien understood he didn’t mean to hurt her.

“Eat your breakfast,” she said. “We have a long day ahead of us.” 

They went to the convenience store and opened shop. Lien pulled the metal bead string to turn on the storefront sign, which read, “At Your Convenience.” She eventually forgot about their conversation at breakfast once Rosa, her only employee, came in for her shift. Rosa, whose job it was to move boxes, keep stock, and speak Spanish to customers, often said they needed a male employee. She wasn’t very old, but after having two children and doing the sort of work Lien couldn’t do herself, Rosa’s knees cricked, and she couldn’t stand for too long anymore. 

“Wow, Lien,” Rosa said while Johnny carried two crates of canned jelly drinks to the fridge aisle. “He’s very strong. And handsome.” Lien’s face warmed. 

Lien had made a list of things for Johnny to do: restock, retrieve the boxes from the delivery truck, throw out all that had been expired in storage. Johnny finished off her list in a few hours. He even learned how to use the cash register. To give him something to do, Lien taught him to greet customers with his dimpled smile and make small talk. As expected, he became adept at this as well. 

“Mother,” Johnny said from across the counter in the afternoon. “We have a problem.” 

Lien didn’t have to look at the security camera monitor to know a small group of teenagers were stuffing milk candy and panda cookies into their pockets. These boys came to the store routinely to steal, but they never took anything too expensive. If they had, Lien would’ve pushed the button underneath the counter to alert the police a long time ago, but in life, Lien had learned some things weren’t worth her skin. “It will be fine,” Lien said. “They will leave eventually.” 

“This isn’t right,” Johnny said. His hand on the counter became a fist. “I’m going to speak with them.” 

“My child,” she said. “Please don’t.” 

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. 

He marched up to the teenagers, and like the realtor in the ad, Johnny crossed his arms. Lien was glad she made Johnny tall, as he towered over the four boys by a half-foot. Johnny’s voice went down to a low register, one that surprised Lien. If they didn’t put everything back, he warned, he would hold them by their feet and shake out whatever was in their pockets. For a moment, the boys looked up at Johnny, their noses wrinkled. And Lien felt the dread of losing something that was both a part of herself but also completely separate. Then, the teenagers emptied their pockets and put the snacks and candy back to the appropriate shelves.  


Her sisters convinced Lien to properly introduce Johnny to the family. Since her son’s creation a week ago, Lien had been keeping Johnny at the convenience store and away from prying eyes. Whenever she saw one of her sister’s cars drive up, she would have Johnny do work in storage, leaving her sisters to linger too long at the counter as they checked over their shoulders. She had also been avoiding calls from them, but she listened to their voice messages. According to them, Johnny needed to socialize outside of Lien and Rosa. It was also important for him to be around other men, and who was Lien to think the men in their family not good enough? “The cruelest thing,” Minh said, “is depriving a child of his own kin.” 

Profits improved with Johnny’s help. His strength expedited a lot of the work, but it was the sort of labor that bored him. Lien bought him business books. After reading a few, he proposed ideas: why had they not implemented free samples yet? And what did Lien think about expanding and opening another At Your Convenience store? Lien, however, tried to explain that business was not something one could learn in a week. Still, he persisted. When Lien deposited money into her savings, Johnny quoted one of his books and said money unspent was worthless and that Lien should look into investing. She pressed her knuckles to his temple and put what was left of the money in her wallet. They went to an outlet to buy Johnny fitted clothes for Minh’s party. 

At Minh’s house, cars spilled out the driveway and all along the curb to the next block. Lien had to park across the street, three houses down. From the looks of things, everyone was there: cousins, in-laws, even family of obscure connection. Lien’s legs began to shake, which her son took notice. 

“Mother,” he said. He put out his arm, and Lien, who was becoming accustomed to expecting things of others, took it. 

Thankfully, their arrival didn’t cause the disturbance she had imagined. The house was hot and crowded, smelling of sweat, perfume, Bud Light. Everyone was red in the face and chest from drinking since the afternoon. They yelled over each other and laughed so hard they held on to forearms or the stair railings to steady themselves. Johnny looked around. His lips pressed together in a “hmm.” Lien had come to learn that this face meant he was deliberating, deciding whether or not something fit his small but growing number of principles. 

“My dear sister,” Minh said, and a small crowd followed her. Minh was also flushed, eyes watering. When she looked at Johnny, her face crumpled into scrutiny, and she reached up to touch his shoulders and then his temples. “My nephew,” she said and smiled. “You look to be the same age as my son. Come. The two of you will make very fast friends.” 

Before Lien could have a say, her son went out to the backyard where Peter and other male relatives stood and smoked. 

Lien was left with her sisters who were uncharacteristically happy in her presence. They kissed her on the cheek, leaving spit and the sour smell of wine. They looked at her with the sort of adoration and glittering eyes she hadn’t seen in years. Lien wiped her cheeks with the back of her hands. 

“You’ve done a great job,” Loan said. 

“Incredible,” Bao said. 

“He looks like the real thing,” Thao said. 

Minh joined their circle with two glasses of wine in either hand, and she handed one to Lien. Lien, who never liked the taste, cradled the wine glass in her palms. “Did you think you could keep him all to yourself?” Minh said. 

“No,” Lien admitted. “I was going to introduce him eventually.” 

“Oh, don’t be so serious,” Minh said. “You were the one being silly for not showing off this son of yours.”

“Indeed,” Loan said, leaning in. “Does he come to work with you every day?” 

Lien nodded, and her sisters sighed and shook their heads. This began the usual discussion about their own children’s shortcomings. Loan’s three daughters were all liberal arts majors and had no prospects of finding jobs that paid well, and they swore off Loan’s suggestion of marrying wealthy men because it went against their feminist beliefs. Both Bao and Thao had raised successful sons who called infrequently. As usual, Minh stayed quiet about her own children and only ever spoke up when she had an opinion about someone else’s. 

“Lien,” Loan said. “How did you manage to do it? How did you create such a perfect son?” 

They all watched her, expectant. Lien did not look away. She met each of their eyes, though she could feel the tears welling and the sharp pain in her throat. “I suppose I do what every mother does,” she said. “I try to teach him all that I know.” Lien took a sip of her wine. 

An hour passed, and Johnny came back inside with an arm around Peter’s shoulders. When they got closer, Lien noticed the stumble in Johnny’s step and that Peter put his arm around Johnny’s waist because Peter was helping him walk. Peter stood a half foot shorter than Johnny, but Peter was wide in his shoulders and arms and wore a black shirt a size too small. He took after his mother with his large eyes, tall sharp nose, and his habit for deflecting blame. “He only had two drinks, Auntie,” Peter said, grinning. “Then, he became like this.” 

Lien set down her lukewarm wine and went to her son. Peter gently pushed Johnny onto her, and eventually, both Johnny’s arms were around her neck, their first embrace. Johnny belched, and Lien rubbed small circles on his back.  

“Mother,” he said in the car. His eyes were bloodshot. “Peter is a very good cousin.” 

“You don’t know what you say,” Lien said, reaching over for his seatbelt and buckling him in. 

“Peter is also intelligent,” he said. “He has a great many plans for the future, and he told me about some of them.” 

“Intelligent people don’t just sit around and share plans,” Lien said.

“He wants to start his own business, Mother.” 

“Everyone wants to start a business,” she said. “Now, lie back and close your eyes. We will be home soon enough.” 

He continued to sit up and look out his window in quiet protest, but he eventually reclined and closed his eyes, either out of exhaustion or nausea. When they got to the house, Johnny vomited on the front lawn and continued to do so in the bathroom. He sat on the cold tile, his chin on the toilet seat. Lien stroked his back as he dry-heaved and hoped all talk about Peter would be forgotten by morning. 


It had been decades since Lien was responsible for anyone. Of course, there were her sisters. They had come to America as teenagers, and when Lien met them at the John F. Kennedy Airport, she was stunned by how much smaller they were from how she remembered them. Her sisters were wan, brittle. Their lips were dry and flaking, and there were knots in their hair. Lien remembered thinking how she felt too young to take on this responsibility, as she had felt too young to go to a new country alone with the Catholic missionaries. When she first fed her sisters, they ate with a terrible quickness that made them sick and vomit the partially digested food. How thinly spread she felt in those early years. She worked multiple jobs, sewing polyester blouses, cleaning dishes at a Chinese restaurant, scrubbing bathrooms in corporate buildings. Lien attended community college but was never able to finish her degree, what with taking care of her sisters, who began to change in America. 

They listened to Lien less and less, dismissed her opinions and advice. They thought Lien too timid of the world, which was filled ripe opportunities. Her sisters married off as quickly as possible, leaving Lien behind without a word, much less an apology. Instead, they sent her signed checks, as if money was enough to pay off their debts. 

Perhaps Lien should have been stricter with her sisters, like the way their late mother had been in Vietnam. Perhaps she should have been harder on them from the beginning, scaring them with stories of her own beginnings in new terrain, the realization that everyone came into the world cold and alone and would eventually leave it the same way. But Lien had been too soft on them, and her sisters grew up seeing a much different world. Peter was the same way. Minh spoiled that boy rotten, and there was nothing anyone could do to air out the smell. 

Throughout the night, Lien got out of bed to check on Johnny. She adjusted the blanket, so it covered his chest. She made sure he slept on one of his ears in case he needed to vomit again. Mostly, she observed him, analyzed all the parts of his face she’d attentively molded and shaped. He looked nothing like Peter because she’d made sure of it. With that small reassurance, she got up and went back to bed. 


Johnny overslept. Fortunately, the store was closed on Mondays, so Lien let him sleep until noon. When she found him, he was sprawled on the pullout sofa, still wearing his party clothes. It took a few nudges for him to wake, and when he did, a sour look appeared on his face. He groaned, rolled over, hugged his pillow so that it covered his ear, but Lien was persistent. She clapped her hands and sat him up. She brought a glass of water for him to drink, but he waved it way, so she left it on the side table. “If you don’t drink,” Lien said, as firmly as she could, “that headache of yours will be the least of your worries.” Johnny made a “tch” sound but accepted the water, cradling the glass on his lap. 

Lien prepared his usual breakfast of four eggs on two servings of rice, but by the time he came into the kitchen, they were cold. He had changed out of his party clothes. Instead, he wore Peter’s old basketball shorts and a shirt with a sports team on the front and holes at the collar. Johnny’s hair was sticking up the back. His face was swollen, almost unrecognizable from the sharp features of the man in the realtor ad. He sipped from his glass of water, which he brought with him, grimacing after every swallow. 

“Mother,” he said. “I think it’s time I get paid.” 

“Get paid?” Lien said, bringing his breakfast to him. 

“A man is nothing without his money,” he said. He didn’t need to mention Peter for her to know who these words belonged to. 

“What do you need money for?” 

He was silent. He cut the eggs with the side of his fork. 

“I’d like to save some for myself,” he said finally, “so I can make my own decisions. Don’t you want that?” He suddenly grabbed her hand with a firmness that almost hurt her—his hand still felt dry and rubbery. “Didn’t you create me so I can be my own man?” 

After breakfast, they stayed at the table to calculate his earnings. They agreed on his wage and overtime. He had worked for a full week, so his first pay was a little more than five hundred dollars. Lien went to the pantry where she kept a small reserve of money in a coffee canister for emergencies. She counted out Johnny’s money and handed it to him. Johnny carefully accounted for each bill. “Thank you, Mother,” he said. “You don’t know how free I feel.” 

Peter came by the house later that day. He was the last person she wanted to see, but Lien could not very well turn him away after he put his foot in the door. He came bearing a bouquet of grocery store flowers, Minh’s idea probably. “Good afternoon, Auntie,” he said and leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. “Is Johnny home? We have a few things to discuss.” 

Lien took the bouquet and moved aside for him to enter. He walked quickly, almost jogging, as if Lien would chase after him. She only needed to walk at her own pace to find Peter in the living room. 

“Hey, man!” Peter said, patting Johnny on the back. Johnny put down his business book and stood up from where he sat on his bed, and they performed a two-clap handshake Johnny must’ve learned the night before. Peter picked up the money Johnny had left on the nightstand and thumbed through it. “Pay day, huh?” 

“Yes,” Johnny said, smiling. “I’ve finally become a man with his own life path.”

 “Very cool,” Peter said, handing the money back. “Lunch is on you then.” He turned and jumped at the sight of Lien, who had been standing there the whole time. “Oh, also, we’ve made plans for today. Is this all right, Auntie?” 

Johnny was already slightly turned towards the door, but he looked at Lien and waited for her permission. “Mother,” he said. “We have no plans for the day.” 

“Fine,” Lien relented. “No more drinks.” 

“Oh, Auntie,” Peter said as he and Johnny walked down the hall. “It’s the middle of the day.” 


Rosa said this was normal. And Lien should be thankful that she had one driven son instead of two teenage daughters. Did Lien know what Rosa’s daughters would do? They would hide report cards, meet with secret boys, sneak out of the apartment. Some days, Rosa wanted to run away herself. So, all things considered, Johnny spending his nights with his cousin wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He always came back a little before 11 pm with promises that he only had a few sips of Peter’s beer. At least he shared things with Lien, like where they had been (a bar in Claremont) and what they talked about (their multitude of business ventures).

“Lien,” Rosa said. “What are you worried about?” 

“Nothing,” Lien said because she knew the truth would sound ridiculous. 

“It’s not a big deal,” Rosa said. “Just loosen the leash. Once he starts making his own mistakes, he will learn from them. Then, you get to shove it in his face.” Rosa laughed and went to restock the seaweed snacks. 

Two weeks into Johnny and Peter’s nightly meetings, they put together a business plan. And of course, they needed money to start. One night after work, Johnny went into the bathroom with the new clothes she had bought him. He came out in his button-down shirt tucked in black slacks. He had even combed his hair with water. Seeing him like this reminded Lien of the time she had found the realtor ad in the newspaper. The picture had given Lien a sense of security she had been gradually losing, like water in cupped hands. As she watched her son, she searched for that feeling again, but Johnny’s sleeves were unbuttoned, and the business proposal was only a small packet of loose-lined paper. 

They wanted to get into business with some of Peter’s friends, who sold masks and moisturizers to aging women. They even sold several products to Minh, and she used them every night religiously. If they could get their own clients, they could have a steady income and even hire other people to do the legwork. They simply needed some money to buy the products and to attend a seminar about the company they would be working for. 

“What do you think, Mother?” he said. “Isn’t this a great opportunity?” 

She smiled and hoped he couldn’t see her mouth quivering. Lien knew of these salespeople. They would come into her store and tried to sell their lotions or hair products at half price, so that Lien could resell them. She swatted these people away like fruit flies because she was not a fool. But she knew her son would be persistent, endlessly stubborn to become the man he was meant to be. Perhaps Rosa was right about letting him learn from failure. “How much do you need?” Lien asked. 

Lien wrote a check for $4,000, which accounted for the masks and moisturizers as well as any extraneous costs. He grabbed her hand, more gently this time. Then, Johnny pressed his lips to her palm and thanked her for everything.


Five days later, Lien was almost relieved to hear Peter had lost the money. He took it and promised Johnny that he could easily double it, but Peter bet on a sports team he was sure would win but lost at the very last second. He shared this news over the phone, and from what Lien could overhear, he seemed to shrug as he spoke, making it seem that this was just the sort of thing that just happened from time to time. But towards the end of the conversation, Peter did the unexpected and apologized: “Hey, I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I really am.” Afterwards, Johnny sat motionless on three crates of energy drinks for half an hour, and Lien, busy with customers, let him be.

On the way home, Lien didn’t feel like lecturing. “It’s all right, my child,” she said. “There will be other opportunities.”  

Johnny stared out the window, his mouth fogging the glass. “But why,” Johnny said. “Why couldn’t I have this opportunity?” 

“Some things aren’t easy,” Lien said. “Some things are just harder to have in life.” 

“And what about the people who ruin opportunities?” he asked. “Shouldn’t they be punished?” 

“Sometimes,” Lien said but faltered. “Sometimes, punishment does not come to those who most deserve it.” 

There was that look on his face again. He pressed his lips together and looked out the window, as if he was trying to see something far off. 

That night, they got ready for bed. Johnny didn’t seem sleepy, so Lien left the lamp on, the way she would when he wanted to stay up to read his business books. But Johnny just sat on the pull-out sofa, his blanket up to his waist. Lien had trouble sleeping as well.  

Something happened in the night that could’ve been a dream. Johnny crept into her room, his loafers lightly tapping the wood floor, half-waking her. He knelt by her bed and whispered that he had to go and make things right. Then, he kissed her on the forehead and disappeared. The phone rang for what felt like a minute later. Lien reached for it on her nightstand only to hear Minh, already making excuses. “He was the one who came to us,” Minh said. “So, we brought him back to you.” 

Peter’s truck was parked out front. His car had a buff job and new wheel covers, evidence that not all Lien’s money was gambled away. Minh had been driving, and Peter sat in the passenger seat beside her. There were a few small cuts on his cheekbone and lower lip, light green crescents on his face, the beginnings of bruises. Peter stared down at his hands, which were bandaged around his knuckles with gauze. 

“Where is he?” Lien asked. “Where is my son?” 

Minh looked back to the bed of the truck, and Lien felt fire in her stomach. Johnny was wrapped in floral bed sheets and laying in the back of the truck like a shot deer. Only his hand was loose from the sheets, and she stared at it for ten seconds, waiting for the fingers to curl. Minh came out of the car, cheeks glistening. She explained how Johnny had arrived at their house in the middle of the night, how Johnny was the first to attack. Peter only fought back out of self-defense. Lien had to understand. 

“Oh, Lien, I’ll make it up to you,” Minh said. She sounded nasally, like a child. “I’ll give you double what you paid. Then, you can build a new and better son.” 

Lien only closed her eyes. When she opened them, she said, “Bring him inside.” 

Peter carried him, huffing all the while. Peter was stronger than Johnny, Lien saw that now. He lay Johnny gently on the pull-out sofa. When Peter and Minh left, Lien sat next to Johnny and pulled down the bed sheet. She almost didn’t recognize him. His eyes were closed. There were no bruises or cuts, but there were specks of dried blood on his face, where he was dented in. He felt as cold as the day she had made him out of Condensed FleshTM and water, when she mixed him in a kiddie pool.

And as much as she wanted to blame Minh or Peter, she couldn’t do it wholly. It was her fault as well. Lien lifted her son’s head and cradled it in her arms. She found herself humming a lullaby. She was sorry for her impatient hands that made him this way, for her stupid hope. Old Lien should have known better. She should have taken her time in making him. She should have given more attention to the eyes to see things how they were and the mouth to speak less foolishly. Lastly, she should have added her own tears to him, so that he could have fully known what she knew, that the world was a much less kind and fair place than she had always wished.