Peggy and I were playing in the barn the day I lost my first hand. We were twelve. Saturday morning light cut through the cracks in the walls and left stripes in the air, illuminated the hay dust, illuminated Peggy’s straw blonde hair streaked with purple Kool-Aid, illuminated the farm tools—the sickle, the ditching spade, the felling axe—that hung from the barn wall. We tossed one of those rubber balls, the kind you use for road hockey, back and forth, climbed the hay bales stacked at the back atop the soft, rotted floor and chucked the ball at each other’s faces as hard as we could, tried to knock each other off balance.
“I was reading about Space yesterday.” Peggy was three bales below me, but she hurled the ball so hard it smacked me in the stomach before I could grab it. I could always tell when Peggy meant for a word to have a capital, because she would put extra emphasis on the initial consonants, Spuh-ace, like the letters were stuck between her teeth and she had to spit to get them out. I hurled the ball at her nose. “There’s this thing called ‘terraforming’,” she cupped her hands and caught, “and the scientists think they can make planets that aren’t Earth,” the E exploded from her mouth in a rain of spittle, “more like Earth, so people could live there. I bet they would make Europa the food planet. Stick all the people on Mars since it’s a quicker trip but then grow all the food on Europa so the people can’t pollute it. Can you imagine corn growing on Europa?” Peggy waved her hands through the bright stars of barn dust as she spoke, climbed the three bales up to meet me where I stood. “Of course, I wouldn’t leave Earth until I absolutely had to. Wouldn’t dare.” Peggy sat on the ledge of hay and I joined her. She bounced the ball off the skin of my knee, the tear in my jeans a frayed black hole I’d tried and failed to sew into non-existence.
“Why not, though? What’s so special about Earth?” I swung my legs, knocked my heels against the sturdy hay.
“It’s home, silly. You don’t leave your home until you have to.”
“But we could go first, go together, be trendsetters.” I grabbed the ball from her and squished it hard in my hands. The rubber had barely any give.
Peggy tugged at the sleeve of my baggy blue flannel. “Us, trendsetters? Ha.” She unfolded my fingers from the ball and plucked it from my hands. “I like it here. Don’t think I’m quite ready to take on zero gravity. I’d probably toss my cookies everywhere.” She threw the ball high, into the open air of the barn, and we both watched it fall, fall, fall and bounce back up, bounce again, bounce and disappear into the cylinder of the thresher. I gave her a look, then flipped over and descended the hay stack until my muddy sneakers hit the floorboards.
Peggy followed. “Mellie, don’t worry about it, I’ll get it.”
“Your arms are too short.” Everything about Peggy was too short. The pencil marks on her kitchen doorframe read 4 ft. 4 in. and had for several years. Her growth spurt had hit before everyone else’s, made her the tallest eight year old in our tiny elementary school, but then stopped, her body stubborn just like the rest of her, and now everyone had passed her, me especially. I loomed over everyone in our seventh grade class, and most of the eighth graders too. Of course, there were only seventeen people between the two classes, but still. My arms were especially long, like, freakishly long, and that made them excellent for reaching, so I climbed onto the conveyor and crawled to the cylinder, peered over the blade to see the ball settled just behind it.
I don’t know why or how the thresher started. My best theory was barn ghosts, and Peggy’s was something to do with solar flares. There was no one around who could have started the engine. There wasn’t even any diesel in it; we’d drained it after the last year’s harvest and weren’t expected to start that year’s for at least three more weeks. But start it did, just as I wrapped my fingers around that fucking ball. I didn’t realize what had happened at first, and my hand wasn’t severed so much as it was demolished by the circular blade, the mist of flesh and blood and rubber that sprayed from the spreader and onto the rotted barn floor the only proof that my hand or that ball had ever existed. For a few seconds I didn’t move or scream, just stared at my wrist stump, confused. Then I turned around, felt the conveyor bounce beneath me, and held out my wrist to Peggy. She screamed. That’s when I finally felt the pain, the searing pain that centered on my wrist, shot up my arm, combined with the unnerving lack of pain coming from the space where my hand was supposed to be. That’s when I screamed. I willed there to be a hand there, willed there to be hand, willed myself not to feel what I felt.
And it worked. Sort of. It still hurt. It hurt so bad my eyes started to go blurry. But even through the blur, I could see it happening. Could see the skin regrowing over the stump of tendons and bone. Could feel the itch of it. I resisted the urge to scratch. The skin regrew entirely in about ten minutes. I sat. My legs dangled off the edge of the conveyor. Peggy came over, her freckle face red from screaming, and watched with me as my hand grew back. All of it. Nails, too, though these ones were short and unbitten and didn’t have dirt under them. The whole process took about an hour, I think, from the movement of the sun stripes on the hay bales, and when it finished Peggy and I stared, at my hand, at each other. My new hand itched between the fingers. It was done growing so I figured it was okay to scratch. Peggy and I stared at each other, so hard that I could see myself, scraggly copper curls and beaky nose, reflected in her Ohio sky eyes.
I turned my hand in front of my face, flexed my fingers, watched the knuckles wrinkle. I slid off the conveyor. The blade had stopped turning, I don’t know when.
Peggy’s eyes were lit, confused but also excited, scared and curious. “I always knew you were Special.”
The next day, Peggy and I went out to the cornfields to lie in the sun while the stalks were still high, our Sunday morning ritual. We skipped down the mud road, sneakers splattered, until we could only see the very top of the barn from where we stood amongst the green gold stalks, the weather vane still. Peggy sat first, dumped her book satchel on the ground, and I followed, and we both lay across the narrow road with our heels dug in the dirt and looked at the big space of clear sky that spread between the towers of cornstalks.
Peggy turned her head to me, though the rest of her still pointed to the sky. A streak of Kool-Aid hair fell across her nose. “I got my mom to drive me to the library last night.”
I turned my head to her and plucked the streak from her nose, draped it back in place. “You call that news?”
“I took out a pile of books on newts. You remember how, in Science, Mrs. Macdonald said that they can regrow their parts? They can. They totally can.” Peggy’s eyes glinted the way they did when she had a hypothesis. “They can regrow so many parts. Limbs. Spinal cords. Even their hearts. Their hearts, Mellie.” She stifled a hiccup. Peggy tended to get the hiccups when she was excited, an unfortunate and rather amusing side effect.
“Are you calling me a newt?”
“Please, I can’t even get you in a kiddie pool, no way you’re amphibious.” Peggy sat up. “But I think it’s a place to start.” Hiccup. “Maybe you’ve got some kind of genetic mutation-”
“So I’m a mutant now?” I propped my head on my elbow, picked mud from one of my curls.
“-that allows for uncommon cell regrowth. One of the books said that newts don’t even get cancer. Like, scientists gave them tumour-causing chemicals—hiccup—and instead of tumours the newts just grew new limbs. Mellie!” Peggy smacked my shoulder. “You could be a super human!”
I lay back down, wished for something else to focus on. I had spent most of the night before staring at my hand, feeling the bones through my skin, rolling the joints between my fingers, trying to find some kind of anomaly to prove that this hand was an imposter. But it was flawless, an exact replica. It didn’t make sense. Corn regrew. Corn was supposed to regrow, year after year, exactly as good as the last. Not hands. Not on people. I looked back at Peggy. She stared at me, still had that glint, hiccupped, didn’t try to stifle it. “What?”
“I think we should cut off one of your fingers.”
I sat up. “Excuse me?”
“For experimental purposes.”
I stood, spoke slowly as I tried to process and form words at the same time. “You want to cut me up…for an experiment?”
“How else are we going to figure out what happened?”
I took a step back. “We’re not.”
Peggy scowled and lay back in the mud. I lowered myself and resumed my position beside her, pulled a disposable camera from the pocket of my cargo shorts. I got a new camera every two weeks, when Mom went into town for errands. It was my job to make it last. Not that I was a gifted photographer, but I liked to experiment. When I showed my first one to Peggy, after Mom brought it back as a birthday present, she checked out every book on photography that she could, told me everything she read about carbon prints and different lenses and aperture. Most of it was useless, of course, considering my mom bought my cameras at the dollar store, but I liked the part about negative space, how the space around a subject was just as important as the subject itself, gave context, showed the subject at its truest. I started to experiment, but had to be careful; only 28 shots on each camera, two shots a day. They had to count.
My first photo was of Peggy. We were eleven, and it was Sunday morning. We stretched across the mud road and talked about something, and then I sat up and took out my camera and pointed it at Peggy, and she just kept on talking because she was the most natural person I knew, and I peered through the lens at her, one arm behind her head, the other in a cast over her stomach from when Asher bucked her off, straw blonde hair frayed and caked with mud, yellow jacket zipped to her chin. I stood and turned the camera sideways so that I could get the whole length of her, hair to jacket to the worn thin knees of her grass-stained jeans, then edged the lens over so that she was flush against the left side of the shot, the right side filled with muddy road. Click. She talked the whole time. When it was developed, her mouth came out blurry.
My second photo was of the barn, taken from the side where the tin roof dipped low down the wall. The fall sun sparkled off the narrow patches of tin between the rust spots and, when I crouched low to take the picture, the barn wind-worn and imposing, I caught the roof at just the right angle, caught a spark that exploded from between the rust and made the tin look like fire. I took the photo with the explosion at the very bottom, filled the rest of the space with sky so that, if you only glanced, you might think it was a sun that rose from the corner.
Now, my back flat on the ground, I held the camera over my face, arched my back and tilted my head so that I could see the cornstalks behind me through the lens. I moved the camera up and down, adjusted until the frame was half cornstalk and half sky, wound the film. Click. Because I took it upside down, the photo would develop and it would look like green gold cornstalks growing out of the sky. Alien food. Maybe from Europa. I slipped the camera into my pocket.
Peggy sat back up, pulled her satchel into her lap. “Will you just hear me out?”
“You’re not cutting me up for science.”
“Don’t you want to know what happened? Aren’t you curious?” Peggy twisted the flap of her satchel in her hands.
“It hurt, Peggy! Just because my hand grew back, doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt to lose.”
Peggy looked down, a mix of shame and disappointment, then looked back at me. “What if I just prick you?”
“No, listen. Just a prick. A tiny pinprick. We can still observe that, see if it heals fast, or weird, or something.”
I hesitated. Peggy had a way of getting what she wanted, even if she had to spend a month and a half weaseling it out of me. “Fine.”
Peggy squealed, then dug a hand into her satchel and retrieved a sandwich bag full of safety pins that varied in size. She pulled out the biggest, one the length of my index finger, and nudged the sharp end out of its cavern. “Give me your hand.” She held out hers. I placed my new right hand into her palm. “Not that one. We already know it’s special. The other one.” I replaced my right with my left, did not expect her to poke as hard as she did. I flinched and yowled, but she held tight to my hand, pinched the pad of my finger so that the blood made a bubble, then wiped it away with her shirt, left a red streak across the cuff of her orange long-sleeve. We both stared at the prick, Peggy with her nose jammed in my palm, me at as safe a distance as possible considering I was attached to it, and watched as the prick closed over, right there, the stain of blood in the troughs of my fingerprint the only evidence that it had even happened.
I took my hand back, pressed at the spot where the prick had been, sucked away the dried blood. “I don’t want to be a super human.”
Peggy brushed the mud off the back of my shirt and helped me up. “We’ll figure you out, don’t worry.” Sunday morning turned to Sunday afternoon as we shuffled our way back to the house for lunch.
Sunday night was a replica of Saturday, only Peggy was there. She lay across the end of my bed, one newt book in front of her, the rest spread all around. I sat in the middle of my duvet, legs pretzeled beneath me. A little before ten I shut off my overhead light, pulled a flashlight from the top drawer of my nightstand, shone it straight at my new knuckles, tried to wrap my brain around them, how they were my knuckles but how they weren’t the knuckles that learned to swing a hammer when I was eight and Dad decided I was old enough to help with barn repair, or the knuckles that got scraped when I fell from the hay bales in the barn, or the knuckles that I broke on Joshua Rybald’s face when he tried to kick me and Peggy off the swing set at school. These knuckles had no history, nor did the fingers, nor the palm. I took my camera from its place on my nightstand and wound it up, shifted so that I could grip the flashlight between my knees. When I looked at my hand through the lens it didn’t feel as foreign. Instead of a hand, it was just a picture, not a part of me, not a part of anything. Just an object in a frame. I spread my fingers wide, let as much dark space through the gaps as I could so that my illuminated hand looked extra pale in comparison. Click. I put the camera back on my nightstand, and my hand was attached to me again, foreign and unexplainable.
Or, not entirely unexplainable. I poked Peggy with my foot. “Fine.”
She looked up from her book. “What?”
“I’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?” She closed the book and set it on the duvet. “Are you absolutely sure?”
“No, but I want to know just like you do.”
Peggy slid off the bed and ambled over to her satchel, dropped in the corner by my laundry hamper. “You don’t have to.” She bent, opened the flap, and emerged with a small hatchet. “You’re sure?”
My stomach churned. I was just as curious as Peggy, though far less excited about it. “Just as long as it’s from this hand.” I held up my right. I was keeping my proper one intact. She nodded solemnly.
We did it in the slaughterhouse, thought it would be easier to explain the blood that way. I kneeled and placed my hand on the chopping block, a rough stump Dad had yanked from the ground with the tractor and chainsawed flat on the top and bottom. I scratched the wood, got soft bits under my nails, twitched my knuckles. Even though it wasn’t really my hand, I still had some qualms about chopping pieces off. “Which finger, do you think?”
Peggy looked at me from the sink, rubbing alcohol in one hand, her hatchet in the other. “Which one do you use the least?” Goodbye, pinkie.
I lay my whole forearm on the stump, nice and sturdy, and Peggy came over, hatchet hanging from her hand. She looked me right in the eyes, asking if I was ready. I gave a nod, a slight one, and continued to watch her eyes even after she’d broken contact. She stared right at my wrist, didn’t even blink, didn’t even hesitate, a stern, unsettling detachment set into her face, one I tried to ignore.
Peggy had a surprisingly strong swing for someone of her size. I was thankful for that. It meant she only had to swing the once. I didn’t scream, though I wanted to. Couldn’t wake the parents. Instead I gasped hard, kicked at the floor with my toes while my eyes teared up, let out a high-pitched whine that scraped the back of my throat. Peggy dropped the hatchet and ran to the counter, grabbed the ratty towel we’d stolen from the linens and wrapped it around my stump to stop the blood. I took it from her and she bent over my severed pinkie, poked it gingerly, gathered her courage, and picked it up, set it on the chopping block where she could study it better. When I pulled off the towel, the stump had already healed over. The bud of another finger pushed against the fresh skin.
“Peggy, look.” I held my hand under her nose. She pulled her notebook from the pocket of her jeans and a pen from her ponytail, squinted at my stub and jotted notes. We sat across from each other for ten minutes, watched my stub stretch itself into a full length finger. It itched as it grew, and ached. I told Peggy and she wrote it in her notebook. When it was done, it looked exactly like the last. Peggy turned her attention to the pinkie on the block. It left a stain of blood where it lay, smaller than the one on the floor. I had almost expected a whole new body to grow off it, but it lay there, useless. “What do we do with it?”
“Throw it out?” Peggy closed her notebook and shoved her pen back into her ponytail.
“But what if someone finds it?” I wrapped the finger in my towel, rolled it tight. There was no way to explain, no way that made any sense. Soon the finger would decompose, and stink. “What if we bury it?”
Peggy lit up. “Mellie, you genius!” She grabbed her hatchet and sprang out the door. I followed, the night air a lovely change from the stench of old death. We made our way around the back of the slaughterhouse, over to the compost heap. It stunk, sweet and vile, the kind of stink that can only come from rotted food. Peggy and I held our breath as she slashed a hole in the ground with her hatchet, right beside the heap, deep enough to hold the towel-wrapped finger. I dropped it in, helped her bury the evidence of our experiment, packed the dirt until it was hard.
When we finished, Peggy stood, gave a salute. “Here lies Mellie, or, at least, some of her.”
Back in my room, I asked Peggy about her observations. She took out her notebook and flipped to her notes, scrunched up her face as she read them over. “Inconclusive. They tell us what is happening, sort of, but not why.” Peggy stared at me and scrunched up her face again, furrowed her brow and pursed her lips.
“What?” I pulled off my dirty clothes and tossed them into a hamper, crawled under the covers in my undies.
Peggy shoved her clothes in her backpack, did the same. “I think we need to do more tests.”
Peggy and I did tests for the rest of the summer, and all through grade eight. Most of them didn’t involve the hatchet, but some of them did. I lost a lot of fingers, grew just as many back. A few toes, another hand, even a foot once, just above the ankle. The foot hurt the worst. We dragged a lawn chair into the slaughterhouse and I sat, and Peggy duct-taped my calf to the block to make sure I didn’t flinch. Even she didn’t have the swing to cut it clean off in one go. It took four. That was the only time I screamed, and even then she didn’t hesitate for a second.
As for other tests, we collected all of my nail clippings, hair trimmings, and the last baby tooth I had left to lose. Peggy analyzed all of them, but we didn’t have the technology to really figure anything out. That’s why we were so excited to start high school. A whole science lab at our disposal, and what was bound to be an incredibly amicable relationship with the Head of Sciences, Mr. Andrews. We had managed to figure out one thing, though. Because of their uselessness, my pinkies took the brunt of the choppings. After a while, Peggy and I noticed that they weren’t growing back exactly the same. Little by little, my pinkies were coming back in worse condition, like photocopies, and photocopies of photocopies. The skin started getting flaky, and they would get sore for no reason, and the nails would break at the merest bump. When we figured that out, Peggy went quiet for a few days. We retired the hatchet, moved on to microscopes.
Peggy’s face was plastered to the eyepiece of the nicest microscope in the lab, which just meant the only one with adjustment knobs that didn’t stick, when I told her we had to go.
“Just a minute. I swear I’ve almost got this figured out.” She twisted the fine adjustment knob, zeroed in on a hangnail I’d bitten off in English. We’d been in high school for four months and Peggy had spent as much time as she could in the lab, before school, after school, wouldn’t leave until Mr. Andrews kicked her out so he could lock up and go home. Of course, I was always there with her, just as curious, not quite as excited.
I poked her in the side. “My mom called. It’s too snowy, she doesn’t want to drive to pick us up. We need to catch the bus.”
Peggy pouted. “I think I’ll just stay here. I can walk home.”
“It’s going to be dark soon.”
“That’s okay. I know the way.” She bent back over the eyepiece.
“The walk is two hours.”
“I really think I’ve found something, Mellie.” She slid the hangnail slide out of the stage clips, replaced it with a hair slide, adjusted the knobs. “I’ve been comparing your slides to those pictures of magnified newt skin I got off the internet. There’s something there, something important.”
“So how are we going to figure out what that is?”
Peggy looked me in the face, right in the eyes. “The only thing I can think of is to study the phenomenon as it’s occurring.”
“You said we were done with the hatchet.”
“We were. Are. Right now I just want to prick you, study the healing as it happens.”
“And when that’s not enough?”
“One last time, Mellie. We’re so close.” I was mostly sure that she would stop if I asked, but sometimes I wondered if she cared about science more than she cared about me. She got that gleam, that manic science fever whenever we spoke about my affliction, and it made me question how far she would be willing to push me for her the sake of her own curiosity. But I wouldn’t say stop, couldn’t, not when my own body had become so foreign, did things I never asked it to do. I unclasped the Buffy button from my backpack, wiped it on my shirt and gave my thumb a good prick. Peggy slid out the hair slide so that I could stick my thumb over the stage. I manoeuvered it until Peggy told me to stop, then stared out the window while she observed. Fat snowflakes fell, stuck to the glass and melted into raindrops. The sky behind them darkened, first to a thick indigo, then to black.
Peggy yelped. “You’re a newt!”
I blinked the blur from my eyes. “What?”
“I knew it! I knew there was a connection!” Peggy hiccupped. I nodded for her to continue. “Newts! Their cells, they de-differentiate at the site of injury—hiccup—reproduce super fast, and then differentiate again to create the new part, a limb—hiccup—or an organ or whatever. I think that’s what your finger is doing, though it closed up before I had a chance to properly look.”
“So you need another finger.” I reattached my button to my backpack.
“Just one. I’m sure Mr. Andrews wouldn’t mind parting with one of the junky microscopes for a night. It’s for the Greater Good.” Of course it was.
Half an hour of charming later, Peggy carried the oldest, cruddiest microscope in her hands as we walked down the side of the road towards home. It was pitch black, and every few feet one of us would skid in our boots. Once in a while, a truck would pass.
“Now what we’ll need to do is figure out how this happened.” Peggy’s discovery didn’t slow her down for a second. Always onto the next thing.
“Does it matter?” I slid over a patch of ice, wobbled and stuck out my arms for balance.
“Of course it does, silly. How can you say that?”
“I mean, isn’t it enough to know that it happens? It’s not like I’m going to be cutting myself up for fun just because I can. Why does it matter how I got this way?”
Peggy, who always walked faster than me even though her legs were significantly shorter, turned around, walked backwards as she spoke, hard purposeful steps. “Because it matters. Because it’s you. However this happened, it could be huge, and you should know who you are.”
“I do know who I am.”
Peggy opened her mouth. Before any words could come out, she slipped, slid into the street, held tight to the microscope, no arms to balance with. The truck hit her before I had a chance to register what had happened.
By the time the ambulance got there, she had lost all feeling in her legs, was barely conscious, the road more blood than ice. They let me ride with her, probably because they thought I would freeze to death otherwise. By the time we got to the hospital, she was gone. I had trouble standing. One of the nurses called my parents to pick me up.
I tried to cut my heart out of my chest that night. Didn’t want it in my body anymore. I lay in the snow behind the slaughterhouse with the sharpest kitchen knife we owned, pressed it into my chest, pushed down. But, the harder I pressed, the more my vision blurred. I tried to stay conscious, fought through the shooting pain that spidered across my chest and burned right down to my pelvis, wanted to scream even though I knew Peggy couldn’t hear me. She was gone, the only part of me I couldn’t grow back. I pressed and pressed and my eyes blurred and then I woke up in the snow, chest completely healed over, knife dropped beside me.
So I tried again, and again, each time getting a little bit deeper, but never able to get to the source before my body stopped me, blacked me out so that I wouldn’t do what most people couldn’t survive. If Peggy had been there, she could have done it. Even after I’d passed out she would have kept going, determined as she was. Would have cut my heart into chunks if that’s what it took to get it out of my ribs. After my eighth try I threw the knife in frustration, so hard it spun, stuck into the wooden wall of the slaughterhouse.
I started to wonder what would happen when the world ended, if the vacuum of space would be enough to tear me apart beyond repair, or if my bits and pieces would still manage to find each other, come hurtling back together, past stars and planets and blackness, and leave me floating. I thought probably the lack of oxygen would kill me regardless. I wouldn’t handle immortality well. Too lonely.
The third picture I ever took was of the cornfield, just after the threshing. Brown gold stubs of stalks stuck from the ground, all their goodness taken somewhere else. Some stood straight up, while others were crumpled right into the soil, the field a vast open space. But it would grow back. The corn grew back every year, tall and thick, just to be cut down again, just to grow and be cut and grow and be cut. Every year.