Anna leaned forward and reached for the slimy, wrinkly blob lying lifeless between her legs on the bloody sheet.
A pale, glowing hand wrapped around her forearm and pulled it back.
“Anna, you can’t touch him. Not yet — maybe not at all,” James said. “You know that.”
“But he’s not breathing. He needs me.”
“He’ll be fine.”
As if in answer to the conversation around him, the baby took a breath and sighed. His body turned from gray-blue to pink-yellow. He opened his black eyes and stared into Anna’s.
She stretched out her arm again, and the child recoiled, hissing at her.
Anna gasped and snatched her hand back to her chest.
“I just want to hold him for a little while.” Her voice quavered.
“We don’t touch, Anna,” James said, and he hovered a hand over her forehead.
“But you and I … we made … a baby.” She pointed toward the mass at the end of the bed.
“And we … touched.”
“You wouldn’t have accepted me any other way. And we don’t touch now, do we? Humans no longer need to touch.”
“But I need to touch, James.”
James studied his wife’s face and thought about all the centuries that had passed since they first met, how much had changed, but also how much remained the same. He loved her, and she was the only one he ever had.
“I’m sorry, Anna. I forget sometimes.” His hand glowed again, and he placed it gently on her forehead. “You haven’t evolved.”
She sobbed and rubbed against his cool skin.
“Why did you have to leave, James?”
“I didn’t leave, Anna. I just lived on. Thanks to my genetic mutation, I’ve lived too long. And I evolved with the rest of the species.”
“Then why did you come back? Couldn’t you have left what we had alone and just … just … kept going?
“I did. For thousands of years. Empty years. I couldn’t die, but I was lost without you. Coming back was my only choice. Does that make me selfish?”
Anna didn’t answer but sat staring at the baby, thinking.
After a couple of minutes, she said, “How did I die?”
“If you didn’t leave, then I must have. So how did I die?”
“I can’t tell you that, Anna.”
“Why not?” She was growing frustrated. “It’s my life, my death. I have a right to know.”
“None of us should know how we’re going to die. It would only spoil our lives. And it might alter the future.”
“The future where no one touches each other, or dies? The future that is so desperate and lonely that you came back here?”
James hung his head, knowing there was no answer to satisfy Anna and fearing that she would stumble onto the truth. He jammed his thoughts even though he knew Anna could not read them.
“And didn’t YOU change the future by siring our … son?” she waved an angry hand toward the newborn.
James stayed quiet, head low to avoid Anna’s gaze.
She didn’t waver and, after several seconds, bellowed, “Well?”.
“We need him,” James answered at last.
“What do you mean, ‘We need him’? Who needs him?”
“We … humans … people. We’ve lost something, and he’s the only one who can help us get it back.”
Anna’s stare bored into the top of James’ head. Her postpartum hormones were starting to swing, and she felt a pang of sympathy.
“What have you — we — lost, James?”
“Compassion,” he said. “And touch.”
“I thought you didn’t need those,” Anna said.
“We don’t, at least not to survive. But to live? To really live? We need something that we don’t have.”
“But he’s not like me, James. He’s like you. Cold. Distant. He won’t be able to help you.”
“He’s more like you than anyone who’s left. And he’s already evolved for longevity — immortality, as far as we know.”
“You’re going to take him, aren’t you?”
James looked away again, unable to meet Anna’s eyes. “I have to,” he whispered.
“Then take me with you, too.”
James’ shoulders lurched up and down, and he sobbed.
“I’m dying, aren’t I, James?” Anna asked. “You came back now because I’ll be dead before long.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning toward her at last. He caressed her face with glimmering fingers.
“I’d better get started then,” she said. “Judging by what I’ve seen so far, there is a lot of work to do.”
She leaned forward again and reached for the newborn. And again, James stopped her.
“You can’t touch him, Anna. Not yet. He won’t allow it.”
“What do I do, then?”
“You have to make him understand first. Touch, if it comes at all, comes second.”
“What do I make him understand, and how?”
“You’ll know, Anna.” James nodded toward the child, who was staring at Anna.
She looked into the baby’s dark, foreboding eyes and felt afraid. She tried to turn away, but an unknown force kept her head locked in place.
“It’s OK, Anna,” James said beside her. “He’s your son.”
She intensified her own gaze and pictured the things that made her happy — her job, tulips in the Spring, dinner at Shay’s … and holding James at night. She thought about her parents and how she had always wanted to be a mother.
Just when Anna thought she could not hold her composure any longer, the baby between her legs began to fidget, and his irises tinted denim blue. To Anna’s astonishment, he grinned.
She smiled back, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Mommy!” the baby shrieked, and reached out a chubby pink hand.
(This story originally published in response to a Flash Fiction Challenge at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds.)