BEFORE SOMETHING ELSE IS GONE
Clai turns off the television, where a newscaster is reporting that over fifty new cases of people waking up without left arms have been reported in Florida. Leonard is in the shower, his clothes dripping a trail from the end of Clai’s bed to the bathroom, where hot water is sending steam curling out in a seductive mass. He has left the door open, which Clai reads as an invitation. Through the blur of frosted glass he can see Leonard’s smooth swimmer’s armpits as he lathers shampoo against his scalp.
He pushes the shower door along its track. Leonard’s eyes snap open and he smiles. Water runs rivers down his pecs and across his lips like he’s in a commercial or a softcore porno.
“Good morning,” Leonard says.
Clai fits himself into the shower, knocking his heels against the jutted shelf where Leonard has helped himself to a squelch of Pert, the shower filled with its beachy scent. The water is just shy of scalding.
“Morning,” Clai says. Reaching out his hands, he smooths them up each of Leonard’s well-shaped biceps. He thinks of the people in Florida waking up without a limb. What a shame it would be, he thinks as he touches Leonard, for the world to lose one of these arms.
They eat eggs over-easy along with granola and skim milk at Clai’s dining room table. His tabby cat Methuselah bounds up in a single fluid motion from floor to chair to table top and mewls for food, bashing his snout against Clai’s chin. Clai rubs at the cat’s throat and the backs of his ears, then scoops him up and plops him on the floor.
“Busy day today?” he says.
“Tomorrow’s worse. Copy deadline tonight, so all I’ll have to manage today is fluttering reporters.”
“Got a good concept for this week’s crossword?”
“I’ve got the names of Greek gods arranged backward throughout the puzzle.”
Leonard, in the absence of his dreamed-of best-selling novel, works as lead copy editor for a small newspaper that has, through the support of a small but devoted and generous list of subscribers, survived the mass emigration from print to digital. He’s also gained a certain amount of fame for the crossword puzzles he writes each week, filling them with devilishly difficult themes and patterns, his most challenging the one where every clue whose answer included ‘ie’ had to cram the two letters into a single square. His notoriety is gossiped about on crossword puzzle blogs (“Yes,” he said when he told Clai, “they do exist”). He spends his days waiting for error-riddled and poorly-researched articles to come across his desk, filling in his empty hours by crafting witty clues and solutions; the first time Clai tried to solve one—Leonard leaning over him like a terrifying teacher watching him fill out an exam for which he was deeply unprepared—he managed to suss out about half a dozen of the answers before throwing in the towel.
“Dinner tonight?” Clai says as he clears the plates and bowls.
“Sure. My place or yours?”
“How about here? I think my A/C is on the fritz.”
“Maybe you should move out.”
Leonard blinks at him, wiping at a crust of yolk hardening at the corner of his mouth. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“I’m just saying you should maybe move out.”
“You’re the English major. You’re the one who reads between lines.”
“Okay.” Leonard kisses Clai, his mouth tight but warm. “I’ll think about it.”
The first chance meeting: Leonard backing into Clai at a bar, sending Clai’s draft beer sloshing against both of their shirts. Leonard spinning, apology already forming on his lips, Clai doing the same even though he’s committed no wrong. A startled look on both of their faces. Leonard breaking into a smile first, all sense of apology vanishing. An offer to buy a new beer, instead. Sitting together, hunched close, next to one another on rickety bar stools that provide good excuses for their shoulders to regularly crash into one another.
If not for those shoulders touching, Clai thinks. If they were gone, what else would be?
Esme answers on the third ring. Clai can hear the whir of her oven’s exhaust fan and the sizzle of bacon.
“Hello, Clai,” she says.
“How many fingers are you holding up?”
“I’m armed with a spatula and my cell phone at the moment, so none.”
“How many could you hold up if you wanted or needed to?”
“All nine.” Esme’s husband lost a finger years ago in a hunting accident involving a bowie knife, invisible tree roots, too much bourbon, and bad luck.
“And the kids?”
“We’re a ten-arm, forty-nine-fingered household.”
“That’s good. And you’re not worried?”
“Well, what would we do to stop it anyway?”
This is true. No rhyme or reason or pattern has been observed by researchers studying the disappearing limbs, the cases scattered throughout Florida: a smattering in the panhandle, dots across Orlando and Tallahassee, a vaguely-seahorse-shaped pattern hustling down toward Miami.
“How’s loverboy?” she says.
“You mean Leonard?”
“Unless there’s a new one.”
“Nope, still Leonard.”
“Then yeah, of course him.”
“Then why can’t you say, ‘How’s Leonard’?”
“Of course I can say that.”
“But that’s not what you say. You always say loverboy.”
“Jeez, what’s cranking your chain today? You called me, you know.”
“Sorry. How are the kids?”
Esme sighs. “Dylan has decided to start stripping off his PJs at night and take shits on the bed, and the girls have fast-tracked to the stage where they pretend Mommy doesn’t exist. They keep asking Brian when Uncle Clai is coming back.”
“I made quite the impression, huh?”
“Your fifty-dollar gift cards to Hot Topic did. Apparently they’re gold to ten-year-old girls, and they think you’re El Dorado.”
“We’ll try to come down sometime. Maybe Christmas. Have you talked to Brian about you going back to work?”
“We did the math. Daycare for Dylan would be so expensive that the increased income would hardly cover the cost.”
“For your own sanity, though.”
“Are you saying I sound crazy?”
“I’m saying you sound ragged.”
“And work will fix it?”
“You could always dip into the fund, go on a trip.” Their parents had been solid investors, and at their deaths, he and Esme shared a meaty inheritance. Not enough, by any means, to allow them to wander off into the life of the luxuriously unemployed who spend months at a time in Aruba or the Maldives, but plenty that they can afford week-long vacations to Brussels or Cancun. Clai took Leonard to Maui last winter, where they’d bloated themselves on Mai Tais and probably given themselves skin cancer.
“You know we’re saving for the kids’ college,” she says.
“Okay, okay. Well, if we come, we promise to give you guys a few nights out. Leonard’s great with kids.”
“Mmm-hmm.” There’s a pause, followed by a soft crashing noise, and Esme begs off the phone, telling Clai she’ll call him next week. He says okay, even though he knows she won’t. He always does the dialing, all of the waiting.
While he arranges his mise en place to prepare dinner—red lentil soup with garam masala; his bag of spice is threatening to turn into a useless brown brick—Clai imagines all the things he could no longer do without his left arm: chop zucchini and bell pepper, drive fast, type, swim—which he took up at first to impress Leonard but then saw the way his body started to transform with muscle and sinew and now keeps at for himself—play the trumpet, knit or sew (not that he’s ever done either). Dozens of other things he’s missing, he’s sure, crumply things like rolling on a condom with one hand while the other is busy elsewhere.
He has the news on high volume in the living room so he can hear the latest updates: the first cases of lost arms have eked into Georgia, and more—another hundred overnight—have hit the Sunshine State, spreading through the Keys and Jacksonville. Jake Tapper is interviewing a bewildered doctor from the CDC when Leonard walks in.
Clai loves the intimacy of Leonard’s entrance, his non-knock, the familiarity that invites Leonard to traipse right into the house, doffing his shoes on the doormat, unwinding a scarf and tossing it onto a high shelf in the coat closet amongst gloves and a trio of plain black knit caps. Leonard is armed with a bottle of Syrah that he presents with a flourish, purple lizard label forward. He sets it on the kitchen island. Clai hands him an onion and knife and they slice and simmer in tandem, boiling water and tossing spices in by the handful.
When they’re seated in their usual spots, bowls steaming and rich, Methuselah splayed on the other end of the table with his legs poking out like a pair of stacked pork chops, Clai says, “Have you thought about what we talked about?”
Leonard blows on his soup and says nothing while he takes his first careful spoonful. After he swallows, he plucks up his wine goblet.
“It’s a big thing to think about.”
“I like my space, Clai.”
“I know that, too. We could turn the guest room into your office.”
“But there’s already your office.”
“We could each have one.”
“Who has two home offices?”
“Probably people with lots of rooms to fill.”
“You’ve only got three.”
“And I never have guests.”
“What if Esme and the kids visit?”
“Oh, please.” Clai slurps his soup. It needs more salt.
“You know how I am.”
“Of course I do.”
Clai’s phone buzzes.
“It’s Esme,” he says.
“Go,” Leonard says, waving. “I’ll still be here.”
Clai does not want to go. He does not want to answer. Something hard and sure tells him that if he answers, Leonard will vanish, not just one arm but all of him. But Leonard shoos him away as he takes another spoonful of soup, so Clai shuts himself in the bedroom. He can almost smell the warmth, the chlorinated odor that comes from the backs of Leonard’s thighs and the crook of his back. When he answers the phone, Clai has to steady his tongue, his breath.
Esme is frantic: “Mandi’s arm vanished, Clai. I don’t know what to do. She’s only a kid.”
“Breathe,” Clai says.
“Clai, she’s missing a fucking arm.”
“Did you take her to the hospital?”
“They sent us away. They took one single fucking look and sent us away because they said they can’t help. They don’t know what’s happening. They wouldn’t even check her in, admit her, whatever the hell you call it. The nurse barely looked up. Like we were nothing. Might as well have been sacks of flour.”
Clai pictures his niece, with her bobbing blonde hair she refuses to have cut, so it sways in tight pigtails that reach her hips. He can hardly imagine the empty sleeve.
“Please try to calm down,” he says.
“Easy for you to say. Your kid isn’t armless.”
“Does she seem to be in pain?”
“She’s terrified. She’s a little girl who woke up without an arm.”
“Lots of people live really fulfilling lives without all their limbs.”
“How is that supposed to help?” Esme is screaming now, her voice scratchy. He can picture the purpling of her throat, the ruby color pulsing in her stretched, tight cheeks. When they were kids and he stole her Barbies, tangling them together by the hair, she would chase him and wail, her face turning the flushed color of amaryllis.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
Esme lets out a long breath. “Okay. Okay. Sorry I yelled. I just don’t know what to do.”
“Tell Mandi it’ll be okay. That you’ll all figure it out together.”
“I just—Clai, I don’t want to lose my arm, too. I don’t want anyone in my family to lose anything.”
“We’ve lost plenty, don’t you think?”
It’s the closest they’ve come to talking about their parents aside from funeral arrangements and the closing of their accounts. At their mother’s funeral, only four weeks after their father’s, Esme was the only one from her clan who came. The kids, she said, weren’t ready to grieve their grandmother because they were still getting over their grandfather. She flew home that same night, hugging Clai during the service and then once more at his house before jumping into a cab and jetting off. Leonard steadied him through that night, saying nothing. They didn’t kiss or fuck or talk. Leonard was lying next to him, curled up with his knees against the backs of Clai’s legs.
“I’m sorry to bother you with this,” Esme says.
“You’re not bothering me.” Clai plops down on the bed, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. “You telling me what’s happened to my niece isn’t a bother. You know that, don’t you?”
“You don’t bother me, Esme. Just tell me what I can do to help.”
“Just answer when I call, I guess.”
“Of course. Any time.”
“Thanks. Tell loverboy I said hi.”
Before he can say, Leonard. His name is Leonard, she hangs up.
The dishes are dry and stacked, extra soup ladled into Tupperware containers. Methuselah is bathing himself at the foot of the bed, one leg canted up like he’s a dancer stretching. Leonard’s arm is threaded over Clai’s shoulder.
“We could both save money if you lived here.”
Leonard sighs, his triceps meaty against Clai’s back. Trying to imagine that weight gone sends a tight shimmer through Clai’s chest like a dozen silver butterflies are batting at his heart.
“It’s a big commitment,” Leonard says.
“Most commitments are.”
“What if something goes wrong?”
“Nothing will go wrong.”
“I meant between us.”
“I know you did.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I can’t be sure nothing will go wrong,” Clai says, rapping on the hard jut of Leonard’s exposed hipbone. “But I do know that certainty is not required.”
“Should I propose to you, then?”
“Maybe not with those words.”
“What would you say if I did?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, don’t worry. I do. I know how you feel about marriage.” Clai taps Leonard’s chest with his palm. “How about this: what’s your worst personal habit, the thing that you think would annoy me the most about living in close quarters with you?”
“I collect lightbulbs.”
“I have so many lightbulbs. When one shorts out, I just buy a new box, totally ignoring the extras. There have to be a dozen boxes next to my extra umbrellas.”
“You have extra umbrellas?”
“See?” Leonard says. “I’d be horrible.” With his deft magician strength, he flops himself up and over Clai, pressing his knees between Clai’s thighs. “You’d hate it.”
Clai threads a hand through Leonard’s thick forest of hair, the other gripping at the ripple of his back. He curls a hand around each shoulder, warm ball bearings.
“That,” he says as Leonard leans his weight down, “I find hard to believe.”
Clai dreams that he is armless, his torso wriggling and writhing to reach out and grip something, anything. He stands in a dusky, blank room where the only thing he can feel is the cold, rigid gunmetal air. When he comes to Leonard is holding him, steadying his thrashing arms, his fingers curled around Clai’s wrists like handcuffs, warm and alive.
“I had no arms,” Clai says.
Leonard blinks at him in the dark and clears his throat. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll move in.”
Clai turns to look at the clock: deep in the well of four in the morning. His eyes are blurry, but he feels a pinching clarity. He is fully awake, his fingers and toes curling.
“Lightbulbs and everything?” Clai says.
“Oh yes. I’ve seen how long you go without trading them out in your own lamps.”
“See? It’s a perfect match.”
They buzz through breakfast. Leonard texts Clai all day, asking whether he should pack up his frying pans, if there will be room for his couch, should he plan to bring his bed. Clai says yes, yes, yes, not worrying about space or logistics or what to do with so many extra drinking glasses and another television. He wants his life filled up with Leonard, for his aroma of chlorine and sandalwood to seep into every corner.
The migration begins that night, when Leonard marches through the door with his first box, a tumbled collection of t-shirts and underwear. Clai has already riffled through his own clothing and made a space in his dresser for Leonard’s things. They stare at the half-empty drawer, standing shoulder to shoulder. Leonard turns and kisses Clai hard. As they fall onto the bed, Clai feels the buzz of his phone in his pocket. He knows he should answer but he doesn’t; in this moment, he can cling only to Leonard with his two arms and ten fingers and everything else wrapped up in a neat, hearty package, because in a day, a week, a month, it could be gone. Some or all. None, a little, everything.
Clai shoves the phone away and touches Leonard’s cheeks. He smiles as they kiss, lets himself be anchored to the here and now, that which he is desperate to keep forever in his grasp.
Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Electric Literature, 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. He has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016 and was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction. He can be found here.