Flavorwire Short Fiction Contest Winner: “The Art and Science of Growing Back Your Arm” by Kim Winternheimer

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In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its first-ever short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire will be publishing each of the four winners. After the jump, read the story that won the contest: “The Art and Science of Growing Back Your Arm” by Kim Winternheimer.

“The Art and Science of Growing Back Your Arm”

by Kim Winternheimer

June and I inspect the cabin for signs that it might betray us: a loose floorboard, a drippy roof, broken springs on a top bunk. It’s her idea. She says ever since her accident she’s become paranoid, and besides, you can never be too careful. It’s tough logic to argue.

We’re the first to arrive and have our choice of sleeping arrangements. I opt for a top bunk by the window that overlooks the field, but June chooses the only bunk without a bed above it, a single twin by the door. That way she can get out of the cabin quickly if there’s a fire. I point out that we can see each other from our beds, and that’s better than talking to someone below you. After a moment I make June promise to wake me if there ever actually is a fire. Just in case.

We talk quietly on our bunks, settling into the spots we’ll occupy for the duration of our stay, until we’ve grown into ourselves and are sent home. I like it so much here already I’ve made a secret promise not to do any growing. Then maybe I can stay in the cabin with June, forever.

During this time we exchange stories.

Even though I’ve never been to camp I’m certain I’ll know all the stories before long. At the rehab center I knew what happened to every leg, foot, arm, hand, and ear. The kids with missing fingers all had similar stories, though my favorite was the boy who got his chomped off by a killer whale. His family had taken him to an aquarium for his birthday and as a surprise his mother arranged for him to go down to the tank where the trainers stand. They way he tells it, he was on the big screen and everything when the trainer told him to smile and pet the whale’s tongue. Well, you can guess what happened after that.

A huge gasp from the crowd, the whale’s bloody smile as it slips back into the tank, the boy’s mother screaming from the side. And you know, I can’t tell you why, but that story is my favorite, even though most of the finger stories are like that. Snap turtle, pit bull, whale; so many digits swallowed up by Mother Nature.

“You’d think there would be more stories about cut-off fingers,” says June. “You know, chain saw, hatchet, a camping accident when Dad’s cutting up firewood.”

“But if you cut off your finger you just pick it up off the ground, put it on ice, and bring it to the hospital to have it sewn back on.”

I look at June and she nods. I can tell we’re going to be best friends.

June is about to tell me her story when we hear footsteps and voices outside. A group of three girls enters the cabin. I jump down from my bunk and June rolls off hers and we introduce ourselves.

Cabin 7 at the Olympic Peninsula Camp for Growing Limbs consists of the following:

– June Jacobson: Left leg; explosion from a hidden mine (her family was traveling through Europe, June went on a walk by herself.)

– Aurora Platt: Left leg; farm equipment

– Genny Smith: Right arm; shark bite

– Megan Shultz: Left arm; machinery from her Dad’s shop

– and me, Caitlin Hobbs: Left arm; farm equipment

Aurora puts it best. “You don’t lose a limb by staying home and sitting on your ass.”

We all laugh, except June who forces a smile. It feels special here. Why my mother thinks I’ll ever want to leave is beyond me.

Before long we get down to the business of growing our limbs. Greg, our camp counselor, meets us near the edge of the forest, which is a large booming expanse of trees and trees and trees. Some of them are so wide the five of us Cabin 7 girls can huddle behind the trunks and still not be seen. The tallest trees shoot up into the sky with beards of moss that hang from creaky limbs hundreds of feet in the air. Under the canopy everything is soggy and damp, even on the hottest day. Greg says this part of the world has a cold soul; that shadows chase away any pockets of hot air trying to hide in the woods. Inside the forest we hunt for these pockets the same way we would search for leprechauns or Santa Claus, inspecting sunny patches for a lingering warmth that forever eludes us. We hobble and leap from shadow to shadow, chasing away things that don’t belong, kicking and punching as we move deeper into the woods.

June stays back. I can see from where I’m standing on a tall rock that she’s grinning from ear to ear but keeps looking over her shoulder, as if to reassert the way back out, constantly worrying about her place too high up or too far down, or too far in to the woods. To me, the forest is thrilling to explore, even if there are a million ways it can hurt us.

Greg calls us out from our game and we emerge through the densely packed trees to catch our breath and let the dampness rise off our skin. It’s warm at the edge of the field and we’re buzzing from the nettles and the crisp air, the padded sound of our feet on the forest floor. So many of us came from rehab centers echoing with tall and sterile sounds. Here, we’re all giggles and gallops. Even June and Aurora, who are missing legs and have to get around on a crutch or prosthesis, seem to levitate off the ground when one of us squeals.

“A slug!”

Gross!

“Was that a hawk?”

Where?

“I think I saw a fish jump out of the lake!”

Excitement.

Greg is getting impatient.

“I’m thrilled you’re so happy to be here, but Day One at camp is full of important Firsts.”

Maybe it’s the awkward proportion of his height and limbs or the fact that we can smell the early adulthood on him, but we’re only half-listening.

“The first thing we do here at camp is plant a Growth Garden,” he says, pointing to a line of small shrubs lying on the grass.

Next to the shrubs are bags of soil and gardening shovels and gloves. Our group has been outfitted with pink gloves and sun hats, which we take to with renewed interest, the bright accessories and the new task corralling our attention.

“Each camper is responsible for his or her own Growth Garden,” Greg says, “a plant you will cultivate and care for during your stay.”

I didn’t notice before, but shrubs of varying size, color, and shape border the field. A precious few are in full bloom, with open flowers sprouting from long, strong limbs. The others, the ones with dying leaves, are hunched and shrunken, overshadowed by the other plants.

“Your plant represents the growth of your body. Nurturing it will help focus your attention on the growth of your own limbs.” Greg saunters over to a particularly full bush with bright pink flowers. “Here someone did an excellent job.” He opens his binder and flips to a tab in the middle. He fingers the page for a moment and then turns it around for us to see. “This little boy, who lost his foot in a…” Greg turns the binder back to double-check the info, “Oh. Due to a flesh eating bacteria.” He raises his eyebrows, but he hardly needs to stress the point.

There is a hierarchy surrounding the accidents at camp. The same was true at rehab. The way you lost your limb, how close you dangled between life and death, how unique your circumstance, says something about you. A flesh eating bacteria, well, that’s a pretty good way to lose a foot.

I keep wondering what Greg lost and grew back. In the informational booklets at the doctor’s office it says that people who have lost an arm tend to grow it back 100%, though on some occasions your hand might contain a few small abnormalities. Hands are just more difficult. The same is true for feet, too. There just aren’t any guarantees. I told my mother about a boy from rehab whose leg grew back at a funny angle. How he stood pigeon-toed, and had to swing his leg out a bit when he walked. My mother told me she knew that boy, and that his mother was disappointed.

About two weeks later my family decided on camp.

Greg’s hands and arms look normal, but I’ll be on the lookout for abnormalities. I’m sure he didn’t lose his, whatever-it-is-that-he-lost, from a flesh eating bacteria. He just doesn’t seem like that kind of guy.

“Quite a special boy indeed,” Greg says and turns his attention back to our Growth Gardens. “Now, let’s get planting!”

We kneel on the cool grass and plunge our hands into the soil. The sensation of being in touch with nature pushes my attention back to the forest and my thoughts drift to the ocean beyond it. That’s what I really want to explore: the sea. I’ve never been to the coast, but I dream about it all the time. They say you can taste the salt on your lips, and I like to scare myself thinking about the sea monsters swimming below the surface, guarding sunken treasure. I doubt any of the shark attack kids will want to go in the water. I look at Genny, my very own shark-attack friend, and feel a burst of pride.

Greg hovers above us, chirping about the benefits of the Growth Garden and how much it will help us grow back our missing parts. I don’t have any interest in working on my garden and I wonder if it’s because I secretly don’t want to grow back my arm. I watch the girls around me with a heightened state of awareness, the one that comes when you suddenly realize you might not belong. I wonder if the other girls are hoping — as much as their parents, as much as their friends, as much as Greg — that their arms and legs will grow back, or if they’re just faking it like I am.

I inspect a dying plant next to mine and think it’s not so bad not having an arm. I’m already used to my lopsided shadow. The way it looks like a stiff breeze might topple me over. Sometimes, though, in a peculiar light, the arms of my shadow look long and fully formed. It makes my heart skip a beat, but when I check my arm it’s always right where I left it, an inch and three quarters below my elbow. No elongated scar. No narrowing at the tip. No signs of growth.

After planting our gardens Greg ushers us to the mess hall for lunch, where we finally get a good look at the other campers.

The tables inside the lodge’s cafeteria look just like the ones from school. Long rectangles with attached benches, lots of little bodies huddled close together. Of course, you can fit more kids with missing arms and legs on a cafeteria bench than normal. Missing lefties are snuggled up next to missing righties, a practical arrangement of nearly whole bodies.

Students are seated by cabin and I’m relieved our group won’t be split up. Greg leads us to an empty table near the far wall, giving us an opportunity to size up the different tables as we make our way to our seats.

“Cabin 4, boys, hands and fingers,” Greg says pointing to a small table of unimpressive preteens. Our shoulders straighten and we flip our hair at the mention of boys, but hands and fingers aren’t much to get excited about, and we’re soon back to our slouched selves as Greg points out other groups.

“Cabin 2, girls, doubles.” I feel my thoughts linger a little longer with this table. Most of the kids I know are only missing one arm or one leg. Cabin 2, the doubles, consists of girls missing any combination of both. It would be a lot harder to be a double with limbs that aren’t growing back, so much to worry about going wrong.

“Look over there,” June whispers and the group pauses as our gaze falls onto the table of our brother cabin: Cabin 8, boys, arms and legs.

Greg is oblivious to our reaction but the strides we take alongside this table are our best. We flash our teeth, suddenly aware of the quality of our tans and the state of our clothes, which we brought to camp with sharply pressed collars but have since taken a feral turn, even in such short a time.

I wait until we’ve passed Cabin 8 to scratch the bug bite on my ankle and June keeps her brilliant smile in place until she’s relieved of the task and can sit down facing the other direction.

A whole group of boys just like us. The idea makes my head spin.

Before Greg leaves to join the other counselors he continues identifying the other kids. Cabin 1, boys, doubles; Cabin 3, girls, hands, and fingers; and finally, the two most interesting cabins in camp, Cabins 9 and 10, the boys and girls who are fully formed.

The amount of space and time the Cabin 9 and 10 kids occupy in my mind seems immense, but when my focus is reeled back to the cafeteria, Greg is still standing with us, and my friends are just taking their seats.

“They’re not missing any limbs,” Megan says and our heads turn sharply in Greg’s direction.

I can tell he is torn by our undivided attention, the consideration he was working so hard for all morning and his desire to be sitting with the other counselors. I realize then, by the look on his face, he’s as perplexed by those cabins as we are and when he speaks his voice carries a false authority, like he’s searching for the appropriate way a good counselor handles such a tricky question.

“Yes, they’re fully formed,” he says letting the weight of that settle in with us one last time. “The kids in Cabins 9 and 10 are here to grow back something other than a limb. Something on the inside that needs fixing. There are no bones out of place or organs that need replacing.” Greg pauses a moment and says, “Just a problem on the inside that needs to change.” And that’s all he says.

I catch eyes with June and Genny. We’ve all heard of this before but never understood what it means. We’ve filed it away with heated political discussions between parents, the problems of increasing tax rates, and the unfathomable idea of ever actually enjoying the taste of alcohol. We’re stuck in a limbo of understanding, so close to the answer but not yet able to grasp it.

Instinctively I touch my arm. The loss of a limb is so easily defined. It’s so clear where your body has gone wrong. These kids, the kids with fully formed arms and legs, come with so many unanswered questions.

“But this is the Olympic Peninsula Camp for Growing Limbs,” Aurora says looking down at the yellow letters on her T-shirt. “What are they doing here?”

Greg still hasn’t sat down, so I know we’re getting a truncated version of what he knows. “Being here, in this overgrown forest, has proven time and time again to help children grow back their limbs.” Greg’s weight shifts strangely and I notice he’s crossed one foot over the other, the toes from one sandal nuzzling the big toe of the other. He continues to speak, unaware of what he’s giving away. It only takes me a second to see that the coddled toe is pale and un-callused. It’s void of any deep-set wrinkles, free from ingrowns, with no evidence of trauma. It’s a young toe, not long of this world. And it’s then I realize that little piggy, the one his other toes keep checking on during Greg’s speech, is the thing he lost and grew back.

I knew it. Greg is a toe guy.

He goes on to regurgitate what we already know about the camp. That it was started a decade ago and has since become a premier facility for kids who are having trouble growing back their limbs. That group therapy, along with the camp owner Mr. Bobby’s systematic approach to the problem of growing parts, along with focused treatment, makes this camp the place to be for kids with growth problems. And that recently includes kids with growing to do on the inside.

During the rest of lunch we slowly return to the ebb and flow of cafeteria camp activities. Exchanges for desserts and juice boxes are made, plans for the rest of the day are discussed, and flirtatious smiles are volleyed in Cabin 8’s direction. It’s only when we’re leaving the cafeteria I take another look at the Cabin 9 and 10 tables. So many arms and legs squished together on a bench. To be honest, it looks pretty awful.

Every camper on earth knows the best thing about sleep-away camp is a bonfire. Sure, there are some campers who won’t venture too close to the fire, like June, who sets her blanket up just before the light from the flames gives way to the darkness around us, but the rest of us scramble around the blaze feeling wild and free until we’re ushered into seated positions on the grass, where we collapse in exaggerated heaps, pulsing with joy at the prospect of being so close to boys in the dark.

I’m in the middle of Megan and Aurora, who can’t stop giggling when I catch sight of one of the Cabin 9 boys from across the fire pit. He’s talking to another boy from his cabin, the cascading glow from the fire lighting up his red hair. I remember him from the cafeteria, his rough curls and the way his bright teeth clicked when he talked.

Across from me, he’s telling a story to a friend, gesturing boldly with both his arms until, it seems, he arrives at the punchline and falls back laughing, kicking his legs into the air. For a moment I want to scold him for being so brazen about having both arms and legs, for being so bold about it, but a moment later it all falls away.

Everything around me goes quiet. It’s like in music class when you’re asked to focus on a single instrument and the rest of the noise just fades to the background. I can hear the Cabin 9 boy’s laugh booming into the field and the trees beyond him, and I picture that laugh scurrying through the trunks of the trees, bounding over fallen limbs and tall rocks until it arrives at the ocean, where it ducks into the cool water and waits, where all the things I don’t understand can be found, impossibly too far from my reach.

“I can’t imagine what’s wrong with him,” Megan says to me, and it takes me a second to register that she’s talking about the same boy.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I mean what it is he needs to grow back. If you ask me, he seems pretty happy.”

I don’t want to tell Megan that some people, like my mother, are required to hold onto sadness. Maybe, what he needs to grow back is a sense that there’s something wrong with the world. That we live in a place where your arm could be ripped from your side, or your finger could end up sitting in the belly of a whale, and that it might take something as messed up as that for you to truly become special.

“Maybe he doesn’t need to grow back happiness,” I say.

Megan’s eyes are fixated on the fire. Her mind is elsewhere. “Imagine,” she says. “All the kids around us every day that need to do growing on the inside and you can’t tell at all. They just look normal. Except they’re not.”

I think about the world pockmarked with kids who have growth problems I won’t ever see. I think about the boy in our building at home, who cries and wails even though he’s easily two years older than me, and the girl on the news who cut up a bunch of animals in our neighborhood. Is that something they could grow into fixing? Or is it worse than that? I wonder if we all have a little bit of growing to do on the inside and why there aren’t any adults at camp doing any growing. I wonder what Mr. Bobby would say my mother needs to grow back, or if she’s fully whole, and why, to me, that seems so much more difficult to understand.

“Nah,” I say. “Those kids are freaks.” And a part of me, a very real part of me, means it. Still, there’s something inside me, about the size of a forearm, that isn’t so sure.

As we head back to our cabins, the excitement of the first day still lingers in our ponytails and freckles, making us bouncy and immune to the prospect of sleep. Greg makes us stop by our Growth Gardens to water our plants before dropping us off and giving us instructions on where to meet for the next day.

When the door shuts behind him we dive onto the low bunks in happy heaps, letting ourselves adjust to the feeling of being back indoors.

I tell the girls I think I know what Greg lost and grew back, and we laugh about it for what seems like hours, until the cadence of our speech slows and the stillness of the night draws us back to our beds. From here we loft words into the dark, letting them bounce around the cabin until something sinks in. The talking, the nighttime talking, carries the weight of our world, and it’s during this time when we bare our souls.

“I think Greg is kind of cute,” says Megan.

Laughter.

“I don’t want to go on the ocean field trip tomorrow,” says Genny.

It’s okay, Genny. You don’t have to get in the water.

“I look fat in my swimsuit,” says Aurora.

You don’t.

I’m settled deep in my bed, feeling warm and safe. The secret of my arm is bursting to get free, and I can feel it rising closer to the surface of my chest, begging to be released it from its burdensome cage. It almost feels like the urge to pee.

Next to my friends I feel honest and brave, and I know this is the time to tell them. To tell my friends that I don’t want to grow my arm back. Not even a little bit.

I take a full, deep breath and begin to speak, but June speaks first.

“I think I can feel my leg growing.”

June’s voice is usually silver and creaky, escaping her mouth in tired pants. Tonight her words are thick and shiny, washing over me in a swift betrayal. I feel like I might choke.

I wait to see how the room responds, desperately hoping there’s someone else in the cabin that feels the same way I do.

I launch a wish into the air: Please.

Then, it happens.

Aurora squeals, “Oh June, really?”

Quickly, the other girls lobby questions into the dark.

— What does it feel like?

— Are you sure?

— This is so exciting!

I ignore June’s answers because I already know what it feels like. The tingling sensation, the pesky itching, the slow burn of bones forming. The doctors call it Growing Pains, and it thrills your parents to no end to hear you describe them.

I dream I follow the Cabin 9 boy into the woods and toward the ocean.

He disappears and reappears behind fallen logs while I struggle to keep up. The sounds of the forest are deafening, every shadow shifting loudly. The ferns roar as I rush past them, and the muddy trail screams at me to turn back. I rush over branches and rocks, letting the salt from the ocean form in crystals on my face.

It’s very cold when I reach the beach, and the boy is gone, but it doesn’t matter because my mother is standing on the shore, a chainsaw in her hand.

“Where is the Cabin 9 boy?” I ask.

My mother’s voice is cool. “I fixed him. Now he’s gone for a swim.”

I look into the water and see a body bobbing among the rolling waves. A mass of red hair serves as a buoy for seagulls, who are plucking away at a bloody hole in the center of his chest.

“What was wrong with him?”

“Oh Caitlin, didn’t you know? He would have broken your heart.” My mother fingers some teeth on the blade. “So I removed his.”

“Will he grow it back?” I ask, the sensation of wanting to cry replaced by a dreamlike ache.

“I’m not sure, honey.” My mother looks pale and angelic and holds her arms out to me. “Come have a hug. Let’s take a look at that arm.”

I look down at my arm and see that it has grown back. My forearm is covered in wrinkly skin like I’ve just come out of the bath, and my pinky finger is dwarfed and crooked. My thumb looks clubbed.

It all looks exactly the way it did when I grew it back the first time.

Horrified, I look up at my mother, who is walking toward me.

“Mom, don’t,” I say, panic rising in my voice. “I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay, Caitlin,” she says, “You’ll just have to try again until you get it right.”

I bolt into the ocean, the cold water a shock to my system. The water is heavy around my legs, but I manage to get waist deep before looking back. I see my mother’s thin frame standing on the beach, her head cocked to one side, a single hand beckoning me back.

I plunge my head under the water.

Then I wake up.

Awake in my bed, I find myself exactly the way I want to be, missing all the right parts. I wait a long while trying to anchor myself in a world without mothers with chainsaws. Without appointments for amputating arms. Without so many people who care about limbs and growing. But the easy breathing of the girls in their bunks reminds me of where I am and why.

I look out the window at a sky full of stars, and think about what I learned in science class. That the light from the stars is delayed; that what we’re really seeing is light from a dead star millions of miles away.

Maybe my arm is a star. Maybe the light from my old arm still exists somewhere and is traveling through space and time, creating the illuminated image of a girl who is fully whole and doesn’t need to worry.

I pray that star is above my house at home. I pray it over and over. I pray it so hard, I start to drift to sleep. I’m not afraid of having the dream again because I’ve had so many like it before. I only hope if I do dream it again, I get farther into the ocean. Deep enough to swim to the bottom and find what I’m looking for. I pray I get to the place with the sunken treasure, where all the things that are lost can be found.

Kim Winternheimer is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared on the Tin House blog, was published by Ooligan Press, and was a finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Her nonfiction has appeared in Portland Monthly Magazine and The Independent, among others. She currently works as fiction editor for The Masters Review. Her work can be found at http://kimternet.com/.