Touch Me, Please Don’t Touch Me
“Takers” by Joe Baumann
A girl kisses a boy and takes his earliest memory. She sees him when he was three, all baby fat and washed-out blue eyes, scrunched in a car seat, his mother and father arguing up front about where they would celebrate Thanksgiving, the leaves on the autumn trees bursting into the color of cranberries and satsumas. When the girl pulls back, the boy feels a vacuum in his brain, like someone has yanked something out with an ice cream scoop and snipped it with garden shears. They are both teary-eyed, she from the sound of “Au Clair de la Lune” burbling from the car stereo, him from the booming gap where he knows something belongs but he can’t remember what. When she brushes her hand against his neck, he takes her pinkie finger.
A dental hygienist, flossing her patient’s teeth, takes first his deviated septum and then his eidetic memory. The dentist will forever remember each fleck of plaque she scrapes, each cavity she prods, every gum she makes bleed.
Other things go: a woman’s stomach, taken by her husband when he pinches her cheek. A pop star’s singing voice when her security guy hooks a hand around her arm. Couples making love trade all kinds of things: sense of hearing, corpus collosums, an appendix, ability to play the flute. Fingernails are ripped from nailbeds, veins rope away from cardiovascular systems. One man’s recently digested meal ends up in his new business partner when they shake hands.
People stop kissing, they stop fucking. Fighting comes to a halt when stabbings come along with unintended consequences, victims’ wounds leaping onto their attackers. Most of the taking is random, but one wife beater inherits his wife’s detached retina. She starts to kick him in the crotch and she takes his contused testicles. They flail on the floor together, knees and elbows and ankles clocking against one another. They trade hair, body fat, knuckle bones. She takes knowledge of his extramarital affair, he the number of her emergency bank account.
Presidents and kings and prime ministers are sequestered so they do not lose nuclear launch codes. Spies are wired messages to get themselves into safe houses. Jostling crowds lose so much people crumble and die within seconds. At baseball stadiums, high-fiving fans lose their fierce loyalty and then, purposely, trade hats and foam fingers. A breastfeeding mother takes her newborn’s entire skeleton and is left with a saggy bag of flesh and blood vessels attached to her chest. She cannot cry out because her child takes her voice. His teeth crowd her mouth, and she screams a noiseless echo, vocal cords strapped into his drooping throat.
One philosopher goes on talk news and argues that this is the outward expression of our lack of identity. Pundits wonder if the end of days has come. “The Rapture,” they say. They quote the Book of Revelation. Thousands die each day, but no one floats to the heavens. No robe-clad horsemen come thundering from the clouds or out of fissures and fault lines.
A movement emerges for those who are willing to risk death to change everything about themselves. They gather in parks, smashing together, giving and taking limbs and internal organs and senses of smell and burned-off taste buds and memories of abuse and grief and rage. Addictions futz from one body to another. Everyone leaves new, fresh but often freaky, too many limbs or too few attached to lopsided torsos. One woman walks away with three hearts beating in syncopation. Every third person lies dead on the ground, mouths twisted into grins (that is, if their lips are still there — one man takes four pairs).
Sex is over for all but the most desperate. Masturbation sleeve and vibrator sales skyrocket. Cammers are booked solid for weeks, showing off their unchanged genitals for salivating voyeurs. Money pours in for research on extrauterine incubation; doctors won’t inseminate by hand because one false move and bye bye middle fingers or ulnas or memorized Dewey Decimal Systems or how to calculate factorials.
“What does it feel like?” ask those who remain whole. “When it happens?”
“Like a light piercing you and slurping on your skin.”
“Like being chewed up from the inside out.”
“Like someone has let a hive of bees free in your bones.”
“Like sinking into a swamp.”
“Like hearing someone else’s voice in your head for the rest of your life.”
Those who have not been touched nod and stare into space, wondering what it would be like to have someone else’s eyes, or a different ear canal, the wrong type of blood. They watch those who have been changed as they limp or laugh the wrong kind of laugh or breathe with only one lung. They want to reach out, brush their fingers against foreign flesh, know what it is to become something else. But they stop, hesitate just long enough that their bones remain their own. The changed look at them and sigh.
About the Author
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri. He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.
“Takers” is published here by permission of the author, Joe Baumann. Copyright © Joe Baumann 2019. All rights reserved.