Fiction · 04/22/2020

A Good Leg Is Hard to Find

The day after the babysitter left was the same day Janie found the prosthetic leg. She was walking in a field where corn had once been planted but since, Father had come along and combined it down. As a result, there were little bits of stalk poking out and making the ground uneven. Some, stubbornly rooted into the earth, stood even taller than she, making it easy for Janie to simply not see the leg. She was looking at one of the higher stalks just ahead, thinking the roots were so round and thick they looked like octopus legs, when she tripped, left foot caught on something that felt like a log but wasn’t. She pushed herself up a little, twisted, and looked: It was pink — but not too pink, beige — but not too beige. And shiny, so shiny that at first Janie thought it might be metal. It was a prosthetic leg. There was nothing else, in fact, that it could be.

The week before, she and the babysitter had watched a show about doctors who made prosthetics for people who didn’t have real limbs. It has to belong to someone, she thought, one of those people, but they’ll never come looking for it here. So she picked the leg up and dragged it behind her the rest of the way home, tucking it inside Father’s barn before going in the house for supper.

Mother served cornbread and fried chicken, boiled squash with snap peas. And as Janie ate, she thought about the leg and hoped she wouldn’t get into trouble.

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While Janie had been walking, Mother had been cooking. First, she’d made a batter. Spreading cornmeal across wax paper, she sprinkled salt, then McCormick’s Season-All on top. As she stood in the kitchen shaking the cylinders, she looked out the window and saw the field, saw Janie’s head bob above it as her stride rose and fell over the stalks, then tumbled. In shock, Mother dropped the Season-All tube into the batter bowl and quickly fished it out. By the time she got to the door, Janie’s head was back to bobbing, so she thought nothing to worry about and went back in the kitchen, noting out the side of her eye that Janie had started veering a bit like a broken shopping cart. But she can’t be bad hurt, Mother thought, then forgot all about it.

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As Janie silently ate, she alternated her chicken with the squash until she’d had enough so Mother was satisfied, and Father wouldn’t call her wasteful. She nibbled on her cornbread, wondering why Mother had gone so heavy on the Season-All tonight. But it wasn’t anything butter couldn’t help, so she took a pat and smeared it across the top. Butter was always good in a jiff, she realized, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to put a little in her hidey-hole in the barn, the October evenings keeping it cool for use.

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Her daughter’s fascination with butter was incurable and Mother had stopped cooking with it whenever she could, knowing Janie was sure to slather more on at meal time. This led to drier, less-flavorful food, dishes she could sometimes scarcely bear to eat herself, but the television newscaster had said extra fat was bad for young children and if guarding Janie’s health was as simple as cutting back on the butter, well, that was a simple sacrifice to make.

Yet as Mother chewed what was now over-seasoned, remarkably dry cornbread, she wondered if living in the country wasn’t already sacrifice enough.

She would never call life dull. But the farm did grow monotonous from time to time, constantly spreading cornmeal across wax paper while watching out the window for her daughter’s bobbing head. She was more worried about Janie psychologically than physically, though, the problem something no Season-All could help: Janie was old for her age.

She blamed the babysitter, a scar-faced girl with a penchant for watching weird documentaries and the news. As a result, Janie had grown fascinated with medical surgery, sea animals, and Congress. That summer, she’d dressed her stuffed animals in red and blue shirts, arranging them in a semi-circle, renaming her doll Minority Whip.

It was weird, Mother knew, but she wasn’t sure how to fix it. So instead she focused on what she could do: Cut back on Janie’s butter intake and fire that blasted babysitter.

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Janie swung her feet at the table and waited for Father to finish his paper. She wanted to see if there were any articles about the leg but told him she needed it for the op-eds. He and Mother exchanged disapproving looks as he handed the front over, which she tore into voraciously. There was nothing about prosthetics, so she gave it back and went to bed.

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Father had not given Janie the entire paper. While she was spreading butter, he’d pulled away the front page, knowing his daughter would ask for the news. That morning, two prisoners had escaped from Eddyville, the state penitentiary across the county line, right within walking distance of the farm. He and Mother had decided not to tell her, but after Janie fell asleep, Father turned on the television for an update.

They’re on foot, the man being interviewed said, so they can’t be far, especially since one of the men relies upon the use of a prosthetic leg.

A prosthetic leg, snorted Father, half-laughing, half-bemused. Well, of course they’re not getting far.

Don’t laugh, Mother said, the technology they use for those now is supposed to be pretty good.

I don’t care how great they are, Father answered. Ain’t no prosthetic leg going to get two prisoners very far. He reached his arm around the side of his back and scratched it. But tomorrow you need to keep Janie near the house nonetheless.

When tomorrow came, Mother told Janie she wasn’t allowed further than two acres, explaining two acres was the cornfield, house, and barn. If Mother called, she was to come in the house immediately, no matter what she might be in the middle of.

Then, she yelled at Janie for standing in the refrigerator door too long and letting out the cold, saying, Put that butter down, we’re not even eating.

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She could shut the door no problem, thought Janie, she had what she came for, then headed her way to the barn. The leg was still there, high in the hayloft, so with a stick of butter in one hand and the P from the World Book in the other, she climbed up, turning the leg over and over in her slightly greasy hand: How precisely did it work?

According to the encyclopedia, a prosthesis was an artificial extension replacing a missing body part, typically used to replace limbs lost by injury (traumatic) or missing at birth (congenital). Prostheses also served to supplement any or all existing, defective body parts.

Picking the leg back up, she shut her eyes and imagined the man it belonged to. Had he been born without one? Or chopped his off in some freak event? More importantly, was he ever coming to get it back?

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I have to have it, George Watkins said, looking his cellmate in the eye. You can’t carry me all the way to Tennessee.

The two sat on the creekbank not far from the field, keeping out a watch for cops and locals.

I thought those things were supposed to be screwed on, his cellmate said. Like tight.

It was new, answered George Watkins. And they hadn’t sent around the man to finish fitting it yet.

The two had been running across the field when the leg came loose and slipped right down his pant leg, plopping off between the stalk rows. His cellmate had been in such a hurry he’d picked George right up, carrying him deep in the woods despite George Watkins beating on his back to stop.

I don’t know why you thought we could go on without it, he said. Why didn’t you just let me pick the thing up and put it right back on? We’ll never find it now.

I ain’t the one walkin’ around half-crippled, his cellmate said. Then, looking down ashamed, Alright, alright, I’ll go back and get your leg. Pointing at George, he added, You wait here.

You’re not gonna find it, George yelled.

The cellmate walked to the edge of the woods where he could see the entire field. There was a smallish girl walking, head bobbing up and down. She turned to look at something one row over, then fell close to where George’s prosthetic had fallen off. Damn it, he thought, she’s tripped on it.

Once the girl was gone, he ran toward the spot, hoping she had not, but in fact the child had taken the leg.

We’ll have to go without it, he told George as soon as he got back. Some girl took it and her parents are bound to call the law. That damned leg of yours is costing more trouble than it’s worth.

Then, we’ll have to get it back, George said. No two ways around it. Are you sure that she took it, he asked, Are you sure you just didn’t go to the wrong place?

She tripped on it, George. I saw it with my own two eyes.

Then, to the girl we go.

So on piggyback, George Watkins and his cellmate stole toward the farmhouse, looking through the windows that night as the family ate cornbread and snap peas, fried chicken and boiled squash. They watched Father as he read the paper, and Mother as she tucked Janie into bed.

Don’t look like they’re calling the cops to me, George said, knowing this meant the little girl had to have hidden the leg, that she had known taking it was wrong the same as any grown thief. She’s going to play with it, he thought, peering through her bedroom window, studying the stuffed animals in oddly-political clothes. My word, he thought, she’s just like me.

That night, he and his cellmate slept far from the house, a good two acres away, while they waited for the child to reveal where she had stowed the leg.

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G Watkins, Janie read as she continued to study her find. 0100964. Funny she hadn’t noticed this before when she’d seen the color and the shininess of the leg. She’d been too dazzled by its sheer existence, by having found it in the field of all places. But there it was all the same and rubbing her hand across, there it stayed: A man’s name etched in the bottom half, near the part that was supposed to be a foot. In Janie’s defense, the writing was small, much like a serial number. That must be it, she thought, a serial number. To think 100,963 other legs were out there, exactly like this one, helping people get from place to place.

Before now, Janie had wanted to be Speaker of the House or an oceanographer when she grew up, but thinking of the miracles G Watkins helped create the day he made this leg, well, she might just become a doctor instead.

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With 911 on the other end of the line, Mother looked out the window for Janie, straining to find her blonde head bouncing across the field. When all this is over, she thought, I want a cordless phone. If they’d had a cordless telephone, she could have called the police and looked for Janie simultaneously. I need you to send the police now, Mother said, stressing the now. That one-legged man they showed on tv? He’s heading to our barn. Piggyback on some other man.

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This had to be the strangest thing the 911 lady had ever heard. But she pushed the button to notify law enforcement anyway and on the map that hung on the wall, the little red dot next to Route 8, Box 464 began to shine.

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You should throw that this way, Janie heard, then looked down from the loft to see them: Two men, one riding the other’s back, inconvenienced and short one leg.

This yours, I take it, she asked, lifting the prosthetic in the air.

Give it to me, little girl, its presumable owner said. Just toss it down gentle like and nobody gets hurt.

What do you mean nobody gets hurt, the other man snapped.

Just throw it down, sweetheart. Toss down the leg and everything’ll be okay. There, he said to his friend, walk that way.

Together they shuffled toward the ladder that led up to Janie’s loft, a moving collective of cartilage and spine, the legless one sliding off the standing one’s back. He reminded Janie of the sea snake from a different show she saw last week, a short history of the levia-something monster. As the creature used its arms to lurch upward one rung at a time, Janie pressed her body against the wall, gripping the leg so tightly, she was almost afraid she’d dent it.

In the distance, the two-legged man heard sirens and yelled to his friend Goodbye, but all her assailant said was Give me my leg.

This thing is going to kill me, Janie thought, kill me because I took this, and thinking that made her hold to the leg even tighter, her final action, this final thought. As his body swung into the loft and his hands reached out to her leg, she felt them pull. The barn grew brighter and the noises of the world more clear: Mother cried Janie, Janie, over and over again. The police dogs barked and a shot sounded near the creekbed. Her arms got tireder as her mind grew sharper, feet kicking every which way as Janie’s original legs moved back and forth while her assailant squeezed and prodded. But still, she would not let him have it.

Swinging all three of her legs as hard as she could, the prosthesis shimmery-shined into the air, whopping G Watkins upside the head in one fell swoop. She’d whacked him so hard the leg flew down to the barnfloor below. Then, shoving the butter straight in his eyes, Janie made her way to freedom, picking her leg up as she went.

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Originally from Sinking Fork, Kentucky, Terena Elizabeth Bell is a fiction writer living in New York. In addition to Necessary Fiction, work has been published by The Yale Review, Natural Bridge, Juked, Saturday Evening Post, and others.