The Children and the Leg Found in June
When the children noticed the leg, they were sure it belonged to an animal. Jessica G assumed the group of kids she thought of as “those jerks” had left it poking out beneath the bush to scare people. They were probably watching from the brush, waiting to laugh at their reactions, and tease them during recess. Jessica G could already see them impersonating her. Hear those jerks calling her a loser. No one would even call them gross for picking up part of a dead deer. Joseph P who was starting to need glasses didn’t even see it. Everything far away had the quality of a dandelion nearing the end of its life, larger as it prepared a shedding and scattering across the Earth. It was Margot, who was proud to be the only Margot in the entire school, who said, “It’s a person’s leg.”
“How do you know it’s not fake?” Pat F crossed his arms.
Jessica G pulled it out onto the grass. The children stared. Long calf. Thigh thin, but muscular. Narrow foot. Heel well maintained as if it had been very recently moisturized with expensive lotion—in fact, Margot thought she smelled flowers and peach like her dad’s girlfriend’s perfume.
Toes painted conch-inside pink; they reminded Joseph P so vividly of the seashell on his mothers’ desk that for the rest of his life he connected the two in a way that made him turn down beach vacations and feel anxious when he noticed pink-painted toenails in flip-flops. The ankle was tattooed: an L with vines growing around it.
Afraid that those jerks were watching, the children took turns gently poking it with sticks. Despite being attached to nothing, the skin whitened and reddened underneath their pokes.
“Gross,” Joseph P said. “Gross.”
They played a game to see who could touch it the longest. Joseph P, who was secretly in like with Margot and thus had the most to lose, was the one who kept going. He had convinced himself, despite the evidence, it was plastic or Halloween costume latex. There was nothing to fear. As Joseph P touched the toes with his left hand, he scrunched his face so hard the freckles on his cheeks distorted. Looked as if they could fall off his face. It felt like his own leg. Like accidentally on purpose touching Margot’s leg on the bus.
Joseph P darted to the blackberry brambles near the woods’ entrance. He vomited with a loud hacking noise, leaving a small puddle beneath the thorns. When he was finished, he wasn’t sure whether he felt worse from barfing or embarrassment.
Pat F thought Joseph P was being a little dramatic. That was what his mother liked to call any big reaction from her friends or his father. He liked how adult the phrase sounded. Pat F was still a little unconvinced it was a real leg. Yeah, it looked a lot like one of his sunburned legs poking out of his shorts. But how could a person lose a leg without any noticeable cut? It was like a Barbie leg pulled from a torso. No blood.
Jessica G and Margot exchanged a look, united in discomfort. Jessica G pulled a piece of gum out of her pants pocket and ripped it in two. She handed half to Margot to stop her from chewing on her fingernails. It was in the friendship agreement they had written over a year ago that decreed, among other things, they would stop each other from chewing fingernails and/or twirling the ends of their long ponytails. Not stopping each other was a violation of the agreement that bound them together until they were at least ninety-three.
“I thought dead things were supposed to smell bad.” Margot accepted the gum.
Joseph P returned, wiping his hands on his jeans. “The nail polish is new.”
He showed them his finger smeared with pink.
Whoever had done this wasn’t someone sitting at a small desk every Monday through Friday listening to Mrs. Franklin read Where the Red Fern Grows and learning about prime numbers. What kind of person would or could sever a woman’s leg? Or create one so real, then paint its toenails pink, and leave it in the woods for them to find? They knew enough now about living, about their neighborhood and town, to understand, suddenly, that anything was possible.
A bird sang: half the notes were beautiful, half-warbled as if something were caught in its beak. The children’s breaths added rhythm. A rustle. Another. Something large was coming toward them. Margot grabbed the leg and put it in her backpack. The foot poked out and touched the tip of her ponytail. They ran. Bright-colored sneakers thumping across the dry ground. Fled toward school. Everyone was gone, but a lone silver car in the parking lot. Past it to their homes, except for Joseph P who went over to Margot’s while waiting for his parents to pick him up.
The two pretended to watch television. An aardvark learned that it was good to study for tests. His rat teacher seemed tired of asking them what was five times three.
“What do you think it is?” Margot whispered. She didn’t watch Joseph P’s face but looked out into the hallway.
She had put the leg in her bedroom.
He tried to sound like an adult, but his voice cracked on the last words. “It’s just a weird toy.”
“Why did you take it with you?” Joseph P asked, his eyes on the aardvark.
“I thought it was just a weird toy.” Margot got up to get a glass of juice.
Pat F’s father had taught him the smartest thing a person could do was question everything. The world was filled with people and organizations who could manipulate reality. He often thought about a story his father had told him about a queen. A real one, not one of those cartoon women made to sell toys that his mother complained about. This queen wanted visiting kings to believe her country was rich and still very great. So, she built sets, cast the most beautiful people she could find as farmers and townspeople. The queen gathered the healthiest animals—not just farm, but skunks, squirrels, stags, and swans—from across the country and put them along the route the kings would take. And the dumb kings never even bothered to look past all the smiling people, the perfectly chosen fruit, the fat squirrels scurrying across the branches. They thought the queen’s land was great and thriving, so they left it alone. Pat F never wanted to be like those dumb kings.
He told his parents in flat words with no emotion, making it clear he was not relating something that happened on TV or something he’d seen while secretly watching his older brother’s horror movies. They had found a leg in the woods four hours ago. Pat F thought it was still there in the woods. He had been too scared to pay attention to Margot.
Pat F’s parents conferred in the other room.
They sat him down on the couch. His mom spoke in the slow voice Pat F knew she used whenever she especially wanted him to remember something. Your imagination is a fun and necessary tool. It fuels creativity. And depending on what you want to be, your brain will absolutely need to work that way. She took a sip of water. But you can’t let it make you feel bad regularly, or it could get in the habit of doing that.
“The world is filled with enough bad things.” His father was looking down as if counting something.
“I’m not lying.”
“Everything’s OK.” Pat F’s father clasped his shoulder, smiled.
Feeling how roughly his father grabbed his shoulder, Pat F knew there was no point in continuing.
The next morning, Margot pulled the leg out of the closet. She measured it twice: thirty-five inches long. Noted the fact in her diary. She squeezed and prodded. Compared it to her own skin. Same. She held her leg against the ruler. Against her beloved stuffed bear, Mr. Stuffington. Mr. Stuffington’s black eyes stared into hers. She thought she could hear him saying, “This is weird, man.” It smelled a little bit like the fridge when it hadn’t been cleaned in a while.