Local Phenomenon

by Christine Rice

Ollie Amfy lost his first limb two weeks after his sixth birthday. It happened one gorgeous late-spring evening, still brisk, as the last of those seashell-pink crabapple blossoms floated off the trees lining the park. Bottom of the ninth inning, the AAA Plumbing little league team down by two with a runner on third and two outs when Ollie connected on a three and two pitch into the gap. A low worm-burner. But when Ollie dropped his bat and took off for first base, his cherry red uniform a flash against the green outfield, his left arm went with it. Just dropped in the dirt with a sickening thud. He was so excited, of course, that he didn’t notice he’d lost the arm. Neither did the thirty or so parents, including his mother, who’d stood to watch him round first and head for second base.

Just as Ollie headed for third, the umpire pulled off his mask and knelt to see what Ollie dropped. Kneeling, he pinched Ollie’s skinny arm with his thumb and forefinger and, just as Ollie rounded third, lifted it to his face as if to confirm his suspicions. Fortunately for Ollie’s team, the ump had the good sense to call Ollie safe before dropping Ollie’s arm and stumbling into the backstop.

The crowd gasped as Ollie slid into home–more for dramatic effect than a heads-up offensive play–then sprung to his feet, pumping his right fist in the air. At that moment, everything but Ollie ground to a sickening halt. After a moment of confusion, Ollie looked to his teammates, silent and staring at his lone right fist, before slowly turning his gaze to his left shoulder. With his right palm, he patted the smooth place where his arm had once been then looked down to spot an arm. It was his arm, of course, with its fish-shaped birthmark on the bicep and the Nemo Band-Aid on the top pinkie knuckle. The crowd waited silently as Ollie lifted the arm and pushed it under the sleeve of his uniform. He kept pushing it into the scapula as if he expected it to magically reattach but, like a busted GI Joe limb, it kept plopping to the ground.

His poor mother, a short-limbed woman with hair dyed green at the ends, made her way down the bleachers dragging her boyfriend, a wiry man with hard black eyes, behind her. Once they reached Ollie, she pushed up her son’s sleeve to find an indentation as smooth and clean as the inside of a porcelain teacup. The wiry man flinched in surprise and this quick movement caused Ollie to instinctively cower and tense. Ollie’s Mama looked from the wiry man to her son and back. “Dirk,” she demanded, “you been hitting my son?” After a few seconds of Dirk hemming and hawing, Ollie’s Mama hissed through gritted teeth, “Clear your motherfucking shit out of the apartment by the time me and Ollie get home.”

An ambulance wailed in the distance and, in a flash, the entire sweaty team formed a circle around Ollie. The coach and Ms. Amphy tried pushing the boys back as the ambulance bounced up the curb and screeched to a stop. EMTs in hazmat suits put Ollie’s arm on ice (his condition was thought to be infectious at first and they couldn’t risk the entire team losing limbs with a four and O season on the books), lifted Ollie onto a gurney, and hauled out of there.

In the ambulance, his Mama kept repeating, more out of shock than belief, “It’ll be all right, Baby, it’ll be okay.”

And you know what that sweet little angel did? He looked up at his Mama, front teeth missing, and said, “Mama, it’s all right. I’m gonna grow a new one just like a tooth.”

“No, no, Ollie,” she said, “this is different.” She looked to the EMTs for guidance but they quickly turned away. At this, Mrs, Amphy kissed the patch of freckles across her son’s nose, looked into his hazel eyes, and said, “This isn’t like losing a tooth.”

“Yes, it is, Mama,” he said confidently. “Especially now that Dirk is gone. It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”

The ambulance pulled into the hospital and those EMTs whisked Ollie past kids with broken arms and gauzed eyes and even one kid with a tire iron stuck clear through her abdomen, to a special room far in the back where the lead physician, Dr. Drogget, began examining Ollie on a stainless steel table. She asked Ollie and his Mama all kinds of questions, poked and prodded and, as she gently patted Ollie’s right shoulder, something incredible happened: a protrusion, creamy white and rigid like fungus blooming on a tree, sprouted from the place where his arm should have been.

His Mama, the doctors, and nurses watched as the tips of his fingers, pink and clean and perfectly manicured, emerged from Ollie’s smooth arm socket. And it was the strangest thing but wouldn’t you know that that arm came out with the same fish-shaped birthmark on his bicep (sans, of course, the Nemo Band-Aid over the pinkie knuckle).

Since that day Ollie has visited doctors and researchers all over the world. Every one of them referred to the regenerative abilities of newts and salamanders but most of them would stop talking when they witnessed the miracle of Ollie’s limb falling off and the subsequent regeneration. After a good many tests, researchers concluded that Ollie had an abnormal amount of a special protein called ‘newt anterior gradient’ in addition to freakishly hardy stem cells. This combination, they concluded, is what triggers the re-growth process.

The researchers have also conducted extensive interviews of Ollie’s Mama and extended family. According to Ms. Amphy, Ollie’s father died in a fishing accident before Ollie’s birth. In addition, she went on the record to claim that she’d never had relations with newts or salamanders…amphibians of any stripe. Ollie’s grandparents Skyped in confirmation that there had never been untoward relations between their side of the family and amphibians. As for Ollie’s father’s extended family medical history, tests are still being conducted.

After a year or so, Mrs. Amphy and Ollie can identify when Ollie is about to lose a limb.

“I’m regenerating,” Ollie would yell as his leg clicked, the way a tooth does when another tooth begins to push its way through. The tendons would then loosen enough for him to wiggle the arm or leg or ear or nose or finger. Sometimes he would lose just a toe or a finger, but sometimes he lost an entire arm or leg. The larger appendages would fall off, for the most part, after Ms. Amphie spent a good amount of time on OKCupid or on those rare mornings when Ollie found a man still in her bed.

The loss of an entire arm or leg seemed to be much more painful than losing a finger so, on those nights, Ms. Amphy would give Ollie a good dose of Advil and put him to bed early.

As you can imagine, the children in Ollie’s school were fascinated by his condition and always seemed eager to help loosen his limbs. Most of them were gentle and good-natured but there were exceptions. One day, that ne’er-do well Bobby Keen tied Ollie’s leg to the classroom door with twine, held him tight and had his cohorts slam the door. This, you can imagine, was quite painful for Ollie and Bobby Keen is no longer welcome in the Amphy house for play dates.


Photo: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Christine Rice’s novel Swarm Theory was awarded the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award (Honorable Mention, Traditional Fiction), an Independent Publisher Book Award or ‘IPPY’ (Silver for Best First Book), and a National Indie Excellence Award – Winner (Regional Fiction – Midwest). Swarm Theory also made PANK’s Best Books of 2016, was included in Powell’s Books Midyear Roundup, the Best Books of 2016 So Far, and was called “a gripping work of Midwest Gothic” by Michigan Public Radio’s Desiree Cooper. Most recently, Christine’s short stories have been published in BELT’s Rust Belt Anthology, The Literary Review, Roanoke Review, American University of Beirut’s Rusted Radishes, F Magazine and Bird’s Thumb, among others. Her essays, interviews, and long-form journalism have appeared in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Big Smoke, The Millions, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times,among other publications, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago. She is currently the managing editor of Hypertext Magazine and Executive Director of the social justice storytelling nonprofit organization Hypertext Magazine & Studio (HMS). Before creating HMS, Christine taught in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department for over 20 years.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *