On a springlike end-of-winter morning I awoke to a furious itching deep under my skin, as if my upper ribs were chafing one against the other. I prayed it wasn’t a rash or a spider bite or any other mundane nothing. I mumbled silent vows. Tithing my allowance at church? I’d do it. Treating Dirty Joe to a dollar menu burger? As soon as he drew near. I’d even try and be gracious with my older brother, Pete.
Hours later, I fidgeted in the back row of Geometry class. The pain in my side flared with such searing intensity that I nearly fell from my seat. For two merciful inhales the agony faded. It swelled again. Pinprick needles chased a disconcerting crackle that I knew to be bone. I wiped away tears before anyone took notice and felt the inside of my shirt with the stubs of new fingers.
Approaching Mr. Henderson’s desk with casual swagger wasn’t easy. The titters of the class threw off my stride, and the singing in my head made my feet feel as if they weren’t my own.
“Johnathan?” Mr. Henderson turned away from his whiteboard proof.
My voice came close to breaking. I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t risk the class hearing such a quaver at such a time. It was all too cliché.
Mr. Henderson didn’t miss a beat. “Do you need to see the nurses?”
The classroom stilled. They sensed the importance of this moment. Even the rudest among them found it too boorish to intrude.
“Your right, is it?” Mr. Henderson asked, but that’s not where his eyes were. He knew. He was giving this to me.
I cleared my throat. “Left.”
The class buzzed and whispered incredulously.
“Let’s see.” Mr. Henderson capped his marker and helped me with my shirt’s lateral zipper. It didn’t lower easily. Bad luck befalls eager fingers, as the saying goes—I’d never dared touch it.
My third hand slipped free. Everyone saw and everyone knew. My new arm was growing fingers first, fully sized and already straining out beyond the second knuckle. No infantile growth. No months of exercise to match my new limb to its peers. Not only was I a lucky lefty, I’d jumped over years of development.
The rarest of rare beginnings. And everyone saw.
Every other high school student already had a second right, though precious few limbs were yet the equal of the originals. Corey, in back, was respected for his three rights, and though Nathan, the star basketball player, had two rights and two lefts, both were slight compared to his natal pair. He folded them, smooth and feminine, across his desk. They’d look right at place on his sister—still, he took due pride.
Today though, belonged to me. I’d caught up. At the rate my arm was progressing, I’d be passing some of my classmates by the weekend.
Mr. Henderson slid open the bottom drawer of his desk, retrieved a double wrap, and secured my new fingers. I’d bled no little amount, but didn’t mind at all. I wished eleven through fifteen could feel the open air. I wanted to watch them wiggle.
“Get down there pronto,” Mr. Henderson said. “It starts to really bite in when the adrenaline fades—always just in time for the wrist too. Trust me.” He waved a dozen times at the class and they chuckled at his humor. Very few adults ever reached ten. That made Mr. Henderson the coolest teacher in the building.
“For the rest of the week I’ll pipe the lesson down to Miss Oshi’s offices. Channel—” Mr. Henderson punched at his computer keyboard while signing out a hall pass and gathering up the day’s assignment as he cleaned his glasses. “—twenty-three. There are so many mending this week. Something in the air?”
The class chuckled. It may have been at my expense.
“Hurry down. And call your parents too. They’ll be proud.”
“I know. I will.” I thought of all the early morning promises I’d made and didn’t regret a single one.
We all have our place in the world. The strong chose it; the weak accept it with a shrug or a grimace. I’d always been the grimacing sort.
“Mindy really wants you.”
A week after my lucky day, Nathan stopped me in the hall to deliver this news. Mindy, an attractive double-right sophomore with a pleasant predilection for short-shorts, had the eye of every student—the jealous and the eager. She’d been feeling the twinges of a second left all year, so she claimed.
“She said that?” I asked.
“Hell yeah.” Nathan leaned in close and set twenty fingers on my shoulders. “Don’t miss your chance.”
He began a sordid tale of what such girls could be coerced to do to earn a desirable guy’s favor. I’d heard it all before, but now that it applied to me personally, my neck set to burning.
“It’s the lefts that do it,” Nathan said giving a quick look over my shoulder at a group of passersby.
“I know. For dancing.”
“Yeah, but no. The holdin’ hands in the hall shit? That’s—symbolic?” He squinted.
“You line up,” I said.
“Oh, you really do. Chicks like getting tangled. Skin on skin. You gotta have everything in the right spot.”
He snickered. I tried to laugh along with him, but couldn’t. Being a part of this conversation had left me stunned.
“Man,” Nathan said. “Don’t miss out. I wouldn’t.”
“Hey, you talk to Coach?”
Nathan desperately wanted me to try out for the team. We would dominate the left side court. He didn’t seem to realize that talent was in the equation too.
“I don’t see how—I’m—”
The bell rang.
“Think about it,” he said. “Seriously, do.”
When I sat down again in the back of Geometry class, I was thinking about it nonstop. I’d forgotten all about basketball.
“Are you new?” asked a light voice from nearby. It jolted me from my daydream.
She sat in the neighboring desk. No girl had started a conversation with me since late in junior high. My precious few witty openings scampered away. I breathed in deep. With her so close, it was as if the air were sugared.
“I’m April,” she said. “I just moved here too.”
“No, I’m not. Not new,” I said. “I meant to say.”
Her eyes shone with amusement.
“I’m April,” she said again.
I could kick myself. “Johnny.”
“Johnny, you miss a lot of class.”
“I was at the nurses.”
“Hmm . . .”
She trailed off with a smile and didn’t ask for an explanation. I wanted to give one, because I had the best excuse ever, but noticed the empty desks around her. People used to sit there. Corey with his triple right had always loafed two rows across from me. No longer. He’d scooted up and over to a new spot where he whispered behind a screen of fingers. Sly glances were being cast our way—her way.
They hadn’t wanted to sit near me either, though they probably would now. I could go up front and they’d free a spot for me, but not for her. Not in her condition.
“April,” I said.
Her eyes really never quit smiling. They pinched like tiny crescents against her cheeks. She must laugh a lot. I’d had a hard time finding anything funny when I’d been relegated to these seats.
A turn of fortune makes every man a philosopher.
In the two weeks since my maturation I’d done more than my share of questioning. Why me, why now? What doors had been opened and did I dare step through them? It pleased me that my classmates now approached me—that I’d become one of them and left the life of an outcast. The tension at home had eased too. On Pete’s weekends away from community college, he treated me with respect—not much, but enough to notice. Even Mom and Dad were less tense. My own college situation loomed ahead, and with my new condition hinting at scholarship chances maybe I’d have more luck than Pete.
I strolled downtown while mulling over my present and future. A canopy of cherry blossoms, the pride of the town, shaded the walks.
To my surprise, I spied April up ahead in pink overalls and a T-shirt. She knelt at a wrought-iron bench and spoke to another soul I knew but always avoided, Dirty Joe.
Dirty Joe, the town’s local derelict, had lost his lower arms in the war—only four stubs remained. I’d never seen another two-armed adult in the flesh. A bibrachial cripple. That’s what the news called them.
The kids had stories about the old guy. How he’d had his arms blown off in Mosul. He’d lost his mind at the sight of it all and went on a civilian stabbing spree. Say the wrong thing and he’d yank that same wicked blade from his boot and go for your digits.
“Johnny!” April called out to me.
I winced. Now Dirty Joe knew my name. He didn’t look up—his fingers worked at unwrapping some find—but he surely squinted in recognition. I trudged nervously over and stopped a dozen paces away, unwilling to come within stabbing distance. I glanced from Joe to April. She had the same wrapping in hand.
“Well?” she asked.
April stood, and to my shock, patted Dirty Joe on the back. He chewed and nodded. April walked toward me. In her left she held a croissant, of all things.
“He’s gonna hassle you every day now,” I said, careful to keep my voice low.
“Let him. Gives him something to look forward to.” Her gaze moved from my lips to my eyes, filling me with a pleasant nervousness. “Everyone deserves that.”
“How’s your classes?” I was just trying to be congenial, but I regretted the words once they were in the air. I’d heard things about her that I’d rather not discuss, but April didn’t hesitate.
“I’m trying out for the cheer squad. They need another now that Heather is—you know.”
“Out of town?”
“We’ll call it that, sure. They need a new girl quick.”
“Not for the next—”
“Trial by fire.”
Incredible. She would just hop up and present herself to that many people? Just like that? She must know what they’d do and say. I couldn’t manage such a feat and I at least had the proper look.
“But a lot of their routines take—” I bit short a blunder.
Her smile faltered and she looked away. She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to. I didn’t need to be told what I’d done.
Finally, she replied. “It’s still worth a try. Right?”
She rubbed at her forearms. Her smile found its place again.
“Come root for me. Having someone in the stands helps.”
I looked over to Joe licking at his grubby fingers, and a quiet guilt settled in. I’d spoken without thinking and she’d brushed it away. I’d had to do the same in the past, but always sank into a sullen funk afterward. Yet there was something else here, some other promise broken.
“Please?” she asked.
“I’ll be there.”
At Monday’s after-school tryouts, I found an out of the way place in the gym. The basketball team ran drills at the far side of the court; the girls’ cheer squad had staked out the other.
Nathan chased a ball over toward my direction. I think he sent it there deliberately.
“You signin’ up?” he asked.
He dribbled the ball between his lefts and eyed the assembling cheerleaders.
“Man, you spent a long time like that. Ages.”
“Whatever. It’s all behind me.”
This hadn’t occurred to me. I blinked and stared at my shoes.
“You know what?” he said. “I felt sorry for you. I think I still do. But you’re here now, man. Wake up.” He smirked past me.
I followed Nathan’s stare over towards April. She stood amongst the cheer squad and nodded quickly at their instructions. When I turned back to Nathan, he was dribbling back across the gym.
April twirled and kicked alongside the other girls, bounding about with them in a most pleasing manner. It seemed odd to me that more guys didn’t come to watch this. Compared to the varsity team’s drills across-court, this was utterly fascinating.
April knew all the chants and she jumped even higher than the other girls. Lacking the weight of an extra limb had a few tenuous benefits. The practice went on for a while—bouncing about, call outs, and posing.
When I clapped at the end, the girls were too engrossed to notice. They gathered around April in a flurry of talk. She kept a smile in place, but it seemed painted on. Her eyes didn’t show happy laughter. Her attention darted nervously from girl to girl as each ladled criticism and concerns and she struggled to answer.
Mindy, in the squad front and center, jabbed a single finger at April’s shoulder, eliciting a laugh and a witty rebuff. I could tell by the way the other girls snickered.
At that moment April spotted me. Mindy saw April’s mild surprise and looked my way too. With so much female attention settling on me at once, I was pinned in place, like a specimen on display.
I waved back with both lefts.
Mindy pressed her lips together tight over a smile and, in a blonde swirl of hair, spun back to the cheerleaders. The girls chattered amongst themselves and gathered up their little equipment. April gave me a worried look before hurrying after them.
It’s all behind me.
That’s what I’d thought, but now I wasn’t so sure. Despite being such an oaf, Nathan had a point. I’d spent so many years in that state. I forgave things no one else could. I’d had to, to live with myself. Maybe I feared moving on and the possibilities that waited. Or maybe, though I’d never say it aloud, I’d grown comfortable with my place in the world.
The thunder from the stands drowned out Pete.
“—my old bike?” he asked.
“Do you want it? You can work the hand cranks now.”
I’d headed back home for dinner and managed to convince Pete, home on a three-day weekend, to join me at the game. We’d wedged ourselves into spots on the front row bench. The bleachers behind and above us shook with the roaring of the home crowd and the deafening applause of a thousand hands.
I answered during a brief lull.
Pete looked at me strangely. The audience exploded into a frenzy of shouts as our team scored another basket.
“We’re pulling away,” Pete said.
I didn’t reply. I watched the cheerleaders capering through another routine. They had a new girl in their midst. I didn’t know her.
“Or is that what this is about?” Pete saw the object of my attention. “The tall one?”
“You are freaking kidding me! You move fast.”
Untrue. Hesitation crushed me down with a mass of what-ifs.
Pete laughed. “You know, at first I thought she was making eyes at me?”
I grabbed Pete’s shoulder and pressed my head close to his. “Listen,” I said. “If family means anything to you, you’ll help me.”
“Whoa. Three’s a—”
“No goddamn jokes.”
Pete set his jaw firm. “All right. So you want my seal of approval? Cause that girl’s—” He gave a whistling exhale.
“What do I do?”
Pete smirked. This situation was ripe for insults. He rubbed at his mouth. “Well, I’d say, go have fun. Just don’t do anything stupid, you follow?”
I frowned. The clock had paused for a time-out and showed only seconds to go. I’d lost track of the game’s progress long ago.
“Listen,” Pete said. “I’ll give you the steps, since you can’t figure them out. At the buzzer march your ass over. Before she can say a word, ask her out. Polite but direct. Would you like to go somewhere? Just like that. And then take her there.”
“No point in waiting.”
“And if she’s not interested?”
“If?” Pete laughed. “God. Yeah, if. So damned lucky.”
The buzzer sounded, a painful shrillness piercing through the crowd’s roar.
Pete dug in his pocket and threw a jangle of keys onto my lap. His car? He’d do that? He pointed from me to the squad, and left. As he’d said, three’s a crowd.
I cupped the keys in my lefts. I appreciated Pete’s generosity—this little assist—but he didn’t understand my situation as well as he thought.
As I rose, the Mighty Crawdad mascot hurried up before me with its claws snapping and its tail upturned.
It spoke, foam-muffled. “What’d you think?”
“Me?” I asked.
I felt a familiar nervousness, and knew.
April was in there. The girls had given her this sad task, made her a token part of the group and allowed the former mascot to join the squad proper. Despite April being as good as them—even better in some ways—she’d been treated like a joke.
The honorable part of me wanted to shout and cry out at the injustice of it all, but some helplessly male aspect took the fore. I couldn’t see anything other than April’s spandexed legs, strikingly long and so out of place on this creature. They didn’t belong here. She didn’t. I didn’t.
My scrutiny couldn’t be more hopelessly shallow, yet it somehow defied every pair of male eyes here. Under that costume and beyond the cosmetic, I saw her. She never hid. She was right out in the open, but only I noticed? It wasn’t possible.
I’d spent a long time like that. Ages.
“What’s wrong with us?” I asked.
While Mindy had had her back turned and cast that wink, she hadn’t seen April raise her single right, touching her fingertips to the sky.
“I’m really glad you made it,” I said.
“Oh, me too. I mean—” She trailed off. “It was hard.”
“I liked it when you did the Shimmy Strut.”
“Ha ha.” She spoke the words with a droll air.
“Really. You can’t imagine how much.”
“Hmm . . .”
This wasn’t the first time she’d approached me. Yet I knew from seeing and knowing her that, unlike the others here, she didn’t care about my second left. She saw who I was even when I lacked the surety myself.
I let the words come without second guessing.
“Would you like to go somewhere?”
The Mighty Crawdad stared at me with unblinking eyes the size of hubcaps and with its mouth frozen in a cartoon grin. April’s silhouette shifted behind the dark mesh of its irises. I wished I could see her expression. Not in a million years would I have guessed it would happen this way.
And that is how a fool finds himself. He struggles and stumbles until a forgiving someone takes him by the hand and leads him to a better place.
Every school day between classes, I carried April’s books. Hers and mine tucked together under my lefts while she held my free right. There were whispers, but they weren’t about us; they didn’t know who we were. April wore her cheer uniform in the halls because she never had a chance at the games. I noticed the sideways scowls and heads that turned away when I met their stare. Before, I’d told myself this shifty-eyed nonsense didn’t matter, when it had been just me, but now I truly believed it.
Each weekend we were together. Mom, and Dad especially, didn’t have too much to say about April—neither to her nor to me. Pete seemed confused.
Two months later at the Spring Dance, I held April tight. With the lights so low, our neighbors didn’t recognize us; they didn’t always have time to move away. In the middle of the gym, right there in front of everyone, April slipped her arms around my neck and kissed me with such depth and passion that for a moment I was somewhere else. I was someone else. My old self, my true self. And she was with me.
Mr. Henderson stepped in and pulled us apart. Just for the moment.
“What is it with you?”
Nathan caught me in the hall one day when April wasn’t around. I never did try out for the team and at first thought this was his familiar haranguing. Perhaps he was prepping for next year.
“Me?” I asked. “Nothing.”
“Seen you around.”
“With that—whatever you call her.”
I didn’t respond.
“You two’re sick. She’s gonna slime off on you.”
I spoke slowly. “Shut your goddamned—”
“You that fuckin’ brave or just plain gross?”
Fifteen fingers trembled, eager to roll into fists. Whatever Nathan’s problem might be—whether he thought he needed to tear me down to keep himself at the top, or if he just felt like voicing his bias—for whatever reason, he didn’t stop.
“Queerin’ it up with a diseased freak.”
In a flash I had Nathan’s strongest wrists in my grip. He punched at me with his free arms but they pattered uselessly against my sides, still too immature to be of real concern. My much more formidable second left squeezed his throat tight. Nathan choked and spluttered. Not until I saw proper fear in his eyes did I shove him thudding into the lockers.
He shook himself loose and casual, as if it hadn’t hurt, though I’d made sure it had.
A crowd of students had stopped with mouths open, drinking in the confrontation. The class alpha male versus the class rebel—for since I’d met April, that’s what I’d become. Now everyone knew who had the upper hand.
Nathan sneered. “You deserve each other.”
Those were the only insightful words he’d ever spoken.
I left the school grounds that day in a black mood, the worst I’d felt in ages. They thought they had a right to choose for me? Never. I refused. My family had enough wisdom to not say anything, but these schoolyard nobodies lacked the sense to know where they stood.
Still mumbling and fuming, I slumped up the front walk to the house. A shadow shifted on the front porch.
“Hey!” I took the front steps in one leap. April sat on our porch swing, slowly easing forward and back with her legs. Her hands lay folded in her lap.
“I missed you today,” I said. “Are you—”
She lifted her face toward me.
For all the insults I’d heard her endure and all the fickle disdain that had been tossed her way, I’d never seen her break.
Tears slipped down April’s cheeks.
“Can we go inside?” She fought to keep her voice steady.
No one was home. Once April and my relationship had been made known, rules about this sort of thing had been sent down from on high.
They’d just been overridden.
I took April’s hand and led her in. We set our things in the kitchen.
“Are you okay?” I asked. I brushed her tears away.
“I did try calling,” I said. “Twice.”
She squeezed my lower left with her right. Before I understood her intentions, she’d slipped our hands under her shirt and pressed my palm to her.
At the touch of her skin my pulse always went cartwheeling uphill at a downhill pace. This brazen maneuver should have upped the intensity to a carnival ride dizziness. But to hear her grief—it stabbed me clean through.
She pushed my hand up higher, letting my fingers trace over her ribs to rest on the nub of her second right. She sobbed.
“April,” I whispered.
She twined her arms up around my neck and hugged me tight. Under my palm, the modest beginnings of her new arm followed the motions of its sister.
She’d never wished for this the way I had. Instead, she’d built a strength I could never claim. Even now, in spite of the tears, it filled her core.
April wept against me and I spoke the words she’d come to hear, the same ones she’d taught me.
“Don’t be afraid,” I said. “You’re still you.”
Rhoads lacks his wife’s classiness, his son’s genius, and his house cat’s fearsome nature. His life is a simple one, Rockwellian with a touch of morbid fancy. Rhoads transcribes his dreams into prose and shares them with the unsuspecting. Somehow, his work has seeped into this magazine and other unknowing venues, including: The Best Horror of the Year, vol. 7; Apex Magazine; Gaia: Shadow & Breath Anthology, vols. 1 & 2, Death’s Realm Anthology, and Daylight Dims Anthology, vol. 2.