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The hand lay nestled between a packet of veal cutlets and a slab of beef short ribs. Though Andrew usually avoided the meat aisle of the grocery store, he passed its breezy and bloody display on his way to the dairy section. His attention had been arrested by what appeared to be human flesh and he’d looked closer. It was definitely a hand and, like the meat with which it shared the refrigeration unit, it rested upon a Styrofoam plate and had been wrapped in cellophane. A price sticker was affixed to its plastic covering just above the ring finger.
Andrew glanced around, wondered if he’d been targeted by some juvenile prankster. Shoppers plucked items from shelves, pushed wobbly-wheeled carts, read through crumpled grocery lists and dog-eared coupon books, but none paid Andrew any attention. He found a store employee, the man’s white smock stained with blood both fresh and old.
“Why is that there?” Andrew asked.
“Oh, those are on sale,” the man said. “But don’t worry, you can freeze ’em and they’ll be fine until you thaw ’em out.”
Once the man had gone, Andrew drew the hand from its frigid bed. The fingers were slender, the nails long and shapely, the bones and veins barely visible; a young woman’s hand. He placed it in his basket and covered it with a packet of whole wheat tortilla wraps.
Working carefully, he pulled at the cellophane, worried its semi-adhesive edges with his finger nails. The plastic wrap came away like dead skin. Gently and with a tea towel to cover his own fingers, Andrew transferred the hand from its Styrofoam backing to a dinner plate on his kitchen table. He sat and, after a moment, wrapped the towel around the ragged stump of the hand’s wrist. That looked good, as though an arm, a shoulder, a body might exist beyond that towel.
The hand was clean and, besides the obvious trauma that had removed it from its owner, it was without scars or injuries. The nails looked healthy and well cared for; the knuckles were smooth and hairless. With a single finger, he touched it. It was cool but warmer than it had been at the store, warmer even—he was certain—than it had been when he’d first unwrapped it. He adjusted the tea towel, covering the hand to its knuckles and leaving only the fingers exposed.
He heard a rapid knock and the front door to his apartment opened a crack. Emily’s round face appeared through the gap. “Andrew? Can I come in?”
Andrew had always been quietly proud to live in a building in which he felt safe enough to leave his door unlocked, and he’d been pleased to have such a friendly, trustworthy next door neighbour as Emily, had welcomed her unannounced visits, but now he leapt to his feet and moved to block her view of the kitchen table, the plate, and its unusual burden.
“Yes, come in, of course, come in.”
She entered, used a thick hip to shut the door behind her. In one hand, she held up a TV schedule. “Check what’s playing tomorrow night.”
Andrew took the guide from her but his eyes refused to focus; the type ran and spun. “What is it?”
A plump finger indicated a string of trembling letters. Her hand was nothing like the one hidden under his tea towel. “It’s Return of the Living Dead. You’re coming over right?”
“Yeah, sure, of course. Always do.”
A smile spread between her cheeks. “It’ll be too fun, ripping this one apart.” Her eyes drifted over his shoulder and her eyebrows dipped. “I thought you were a vegetarian.”
“What, yeah, why?” Andrew said, thrown by the non-sequitur.
“Oh, well, anyway, you shouldn’t leave that out. It’ll spoil.” She smiled and, as she bustled out the door, added, “See you tomorrow night.”
He turned to the table. The tea towel lay next to the plate. The hand’s pale white skin glowed in the waning sunlight. His chin touching the table surface, Andrew eyed the hand closely. As though enervated by his proximity, the index finger moved, then the thumb.
Andrew released the breath he’d been holding.
He called in sick the next day and took the bus to the grocery store. A basket in hand, he stalked the meat aisles, eyes scanning the shelves and cooling units. Andrew’s initial inspection revealed nothing and he began rifling through the stacks of pork loin and pepper steak, his hands growing numb from the cold. He uncovered a forearm from among the sausages. A foot stood under a fatty pile of ham hocks. The quivering orb of an eye stared back at him from within a bag of frozen meatballs.
In a gumdrop-shaped mound of processed turkey flesh, he noticed a stripe of discoloration, like a stratum of precious minerals in the Earth’s crust. The meat went under the slicer, and with every fresh slice, the machine’s blade drew closer to the white-pink band. Not the white-pink of reconstituted poultry, but the white-pink of a seashell’s interior, of the hand resting on a cushion in his living room, of a young woman’s cheek.
The seven-hundred and eighty grams of turkey lunch meat fell into the garbage with a wet slap. Andrew held the single remaining slice of flesh in the palm of his hand; a woman’s cheek, smooth and blameless. It felt cool against his own cheek but, as it warmed, soaking up his body heat, the woman’s skin inched along his face, nuzzling him. She smelled of Christmas dinners.
Before him, the kitchen table was strewn with the grisly pieces of a beautiful puzzle. Andrew examined the pieces, one by one, and came to know without a doubt that each part belonged to the same whole.
A forearm matched an upper arm perfectly, the two hunks of flesh and bone fitting together to create a complex, articulate limb. Pleased with his modest progress, Andrew felt a jolt as he realized the forearm’s wrist stump matched the hand, his original find. Strung together like a flesh train, the three pieces regained a semblance of humanity, but they did not hold together. The ruptured flesh and disconnected joints remained ruptured and disconnected.
Andrew placed the items on a cookie sheet and slid the pan into the oven. He turned the dial to low heat, crouched by the tiny window in the oven door, and waited. After a few minutes, he donned oven mitts, withdrew the baking sheet, and placed it on the counter.
The upper arm, forearm and wrist were one, the skin over each joint smooth. And, as Andrew watched, the arm, warm and complete, twitched like seaweed in a soft current.
On Emily’s giant flat-screen TV, an inexplicably verbal zombie requested emergency services “send . . . more . . . paramedics,” and Emily laughed, a mouthful of masticated popcorn throbbing on her tongue.
The tongue. Andrew wondered if he would ever find the tongue.
He had reconstructed the woman’s right arm, the lower portion of her left leg, and much of her lower abdomen, but so many pieces were still missing. Her head and face, in particular, consisted of little more than a cheek, an upper lip, and a few teeth Andrew had found among the crab claws in the grocery store’s seafood section. He’d wanted to return to the store immediately, but had promised Emily he would join her for movie night and didn’t want to disappoint.
The jigsaw woman could wait.
Emily made jokes, excoriating the actors, the screenwriters, and Andrew nodded, forced a laugh, pretended to watch and listen and care.
Maybe the jigsaw woman had already been waiting too long. What if he had come across her hand too late? What if much of her had already been purchased and . . . consumed? A hornets’ nest erupted in Andrew’s stomach and he clenched his teeth, fought to keep from groaning.
“Hey, you okay?” Emily was looking at him, light from the television flickering on her cheek and in her hair. She smiled and her fingers brushed his elbow.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
On the screen, a trio of zombies fed on the brains of a recent victim. They scooped hunks of runny grey matter from the open skull, shoved gobs of the stuff into their mouths.
Andrew shut his eyes. Now he saw the jigsaw woman, each of her body parts present and accounted for and displayed on its own serving dish. Forks and steak knives glinted like implements of torture.
“Andrew, are you sure you’re okay? You’re breathing really fast and . . .”
Emily placed her hand on his knee. Her fingers looked like uncooked sausages, fat and glistening in the television’s multicoloured glow. Her wrist flexed; bloody gristle and cartilage wrapped in pink fat and skin.
“Is it the movie?” she said, her lips like a pair of exposed arteries. “I mean, I didn’t think—I didn’t think you’d find it scary or anything.”
“No,” he said, and covered his face with his hands. “I’m just tired, I think. Kinda distracted.”
“You want to talk about it?” Her hand squeezed his knee and he swallowed a scream.
He stood and turned to face her. “No. No, thanks. I think I’ll just go home, okay? I’m sorry. I really am.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, standing now too. She moved to follow him to the door, to see him out, but she knocked over the bowl of popcorn, spilling little white puffs of overheated kernels all over the living room carpet.
In his own apartment, in his own living room, on his own couch, Andrew sat with the arm in his lap. It wriggled gently against him, as though trying to find the perfect, most comfortable position. He lifted it and propped its raw shoulder on the couch’s backrest so that its elbow rested by his hip and its hand lay on his knee. He placed his hand over hers. He shut his eyes. He sighed.
He hadn’t gone to work in four days, and had spent the better part of the past seventy-two hours rooting through the meat, seafood and deli sections of the grocery store. His devotion to the task and his determination to succeed had not been in vain. The jigsaw woman lay on an electric blanket spread out over his living room floor. From her slender shoulders to her delicate toes, she was complete. The heat of the electric blanket had proved enough to join her many body parts into a single body and imbue that beautiful whole with subtle life. Like a newborn, she squirmed upon the heated blanket but did not rise or attempt locomotion.
Her immobility was a good thing, given that she remained headless.
Andrew knelt before the coffee table upon which he had reconstructed her head, her face. She watched him, quizzical, as he gently pried open her lips.
“This won’t hurt at all, you know that,” he said. “I’ve already heated it, so it should fuse in a second or two.”
He had found her tongue in a package of bacon strips. The tongue slipped past her lips and into her mouth and Andrew felt a slight resistance as the lump of flesh sunk its root a few inches beyond her teeth. She locked eyes with him as her tongue moved within his grasp.
Andrew withdrew his fingers, wet with her saliva, and asked, “What is your name?”
She produced no sound when she spoke; she still lacked vocal cords and had no breath. Andrew read her lips: “Caroline.”
He smiled, leaned forward, and kissed her. Their tongues met and he heard as, behind him, her body began squirming with greater vigour. He pulled away and licked his lips. She tasted of brunch with his family, before his parents passed away.
“Soon,” he said, stroking her cheek, “you will be complete and we will be together.”
Only her neck remained to be found.
Andrew leapt to his feet and ran for the front door. From the hall, Emily would not have a view of the living room, but if she moved into the kitchen . . .
He nearly ploughed into her in the kitchen entrance.
“Oh, sorry, am I—am I bothering you?” The question saddened him. She had never had to ask before and he realized that, since he’d discovered Caroline, he had been neglecting his friendship with Emily.
“Not at all,” he said.
“I just wanted to come over and apologize for the other night.”
“Oh no, not at all.” She thought it was her fault.
“I shouldn’t have . . .” Her fingers wrestled each other. “I wasn’t thinking when I—”
“It was me, I was being an idiot and I . . .” He laughed, hoping to diffuse the tension. “I don’t know what was with me, really.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, it was soft and round. “Movie night again soon?”
She grinned, visibly relieved, and Andrew felt another rush of shame. She’d been holding this in for three days.
“Cool,” she said. “Wanna try Return again?”
“Know what? How about Johnny Mnemonic, you’ve got that right?”
Her face lit up like a cherub’s. “Great pick. That thing’s terrible! Tomorrow night?”
“Sure,” he said, walking her to the door.
“Oh,” she said, “and I’ve mentioned the smell to management.”
“Yeah, haven’t you noticed? Smells like something died.” She frowned at the ceiling. “Probably in the vents. A rat or a cat.”
Andrew followed her gaze. “Oh.”
“You might want to call the building manager too,” Emily added. “Seems to smell worse in your place.”
“Yeah, okay. Yeah, I will.”
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at his chin.
He ran a hand over his mouth. “What?”
“Looks like blood,” she said.
“Must—must’ve cut myself shaving.”
She nodded and, on her way out, said, “Tomorrow night.”
“See you,” Andrew said as the door shut.
They sat together on Emily’s couch. Andrew had spent the day searching the grocery store but he had not located Caroline’s neck. Her head remained detached from her body.
Emily said the cyber-dolphin carried the rest of the cast and Andrew forced a laugh. He was determined to make up for his behaviour during his and Emily’s last movie night. She did not deserve the concern he had caused her.
“Well,” Andrew said, “that’s Kenny Baker in there, and he’s a genius.”
Emily laughed, inhaled a hand-full of popcorn before her throat was ready to accept it, and began coughing.
“Woah, who taught you to eat, anyway?” Andrew slapped her on the back until she turned to him, red faced and giggling.
Emily massaged her throat and Andrew forced aside an image of Caroline’s face hovering over her shoulders, blood pouring into the gap where her neck should be.
“Sorry,” she said and sipped from a can of Coke Zero.
“Got anymore of those?”
She swallowed and nodded. “In the fridge.”
Emily’s kitchen smelled of microwave cooking and cleaning products. The fridge was nearly empty. Four black cans of Coke, a pint of low-fat milk, a bowl of wilting vegetables, and Caroline’s neck. It sat on a plate, shrouded in cling wrap. Andrew removed the plate, cold and heavy, and stripped off the plastic covering. Her neck was pale and subtly veined, and shaped like a tree stump made flesh.
A bubble grew in his throat then burst and leaked out his eyes.
He removed the flesh from the plate and hid it under his shirt. It was cool against his belly but immediately began to warm.
In the living room, Emily looked over. “D’you not find a drink?”
“I—changed my mind.” Andrew said. Caroline’s neck swallowed against his flesh and he felt something wet dribble into his navel. “I think—I think I should go, Em.”
Emily’s face fell but then her smile reappeared and she stood. “No way,” she said. “Not again. You sit right back down, buddy. You’re upset? Fine, then you tell me about it. Otherwise, you just be still and watch the movie. Okay?”
She looked up at him and she was smiling and, rather than chubby and soft, she looked strong and sturdy. He resumed his place on the couch and Emily did the same.
“Wanna tell me about it?” she asked.
“Whatever’s bothering you, Andrew. You’ve been a little weird for a while now.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” He felt the neck, Caroline’s neck, pulsing rapidly, swallowing hard, as though trying to drink the heat from him. Liquid ran down his stomach, soaked into the waistband of his jeans, his underwear.
“You sure you don’t want to—?” She stopped. “Andrew, did you spill . . . What’s that?”
Andrew said nothing. There was nothing to say.
“What—what’s under your shirt, Andrew?” Her voice was low, just above a whisper, like she didn’t want to be asking the question and knew she probably didn’t want to hear his answer.
Tears ran down his cheeks and he hoped they weren’t visible in the dark. His sobs, though, were all too audible.
“It’s okay, Andrew,” Emily said. “It’s okay.” Gently, she raised the hem of his shirt. He let her.
“Oh. Oh, Andrew.”
Her expression was hidden in shadow, her face backlit by the flat-screen, but Andrew could hear the disappointment in her voice.
“I—I’m sorry, I just . . .” he stammered.
She leaned into the light and Andrew saw that she was not angry, not disgusted, but only concerned, her eyes filled with sad kindness. This made him cry harder, his sobs pulling at his diaphragm as he cradled Caroline’s neck in his arms like a dead baby.
“It’s alright, Andrew,” Emily said and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You can have it. It’s yours, okay? You don’t have to feel bad or ashamed.”
He shook his head but could say nothing.
“I’m sure it’s hard being a vegetarian,” Emily said. “I’ve never tried—I don’t think I could do it . . .”
Andrew’s sobs slowed like a dying engine and he looked up at her. Vegetarian?
“You know,” she continued, smiling and rubbing his shoulder, “there are other ways. You could buy local, cruelty-free meat. We could do it together. We could visit some local farms so we can see just—”
“What are you talking about?” Andrew pulled Caroline’s neck closer, felt it throb in his hands.
Emily blinked. “I know it’s not the same as being a vegetarian, not as good, but it could be, I don’t know, a compromise?”
Andrew stood, backed away from the couch, from Emily. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Andrew, I—” She reached for him and he spun away from her, ran out the door, his prize held tight to his chest.
He spread the electric blanket over his bed and lay her body upon the blanket. She watched him and smiled as he placed her head on his pillow. The neck, still cool, was a perfect fit, bridging the terrible gap between her skull and body.
“Just a few minutes more,” he said and grinned as Caroline blew him a kiss.
He wrapped the heated blanket around her body, stopping to kiss her before obscuring her face. Seated on the edge of the bed, Andrew turned away and cradled his head in his hands. It seemed unbelievable that she would soon be his, that they would be each other’s. He felt as an expectant father must, alone in the hospital waiting room, useless and without recourse while his beloved did all the work, while everything depended upon her.
A rustling noise drew his attention. The blanket moved like water stroked by a gentle breeze. His hands trembled and he was vaguely aware that he held his breath as he pulled the blanket from her face.
She opened her eyes, her pupils growing larger and then retracting, and she smiled. Then she raised her chin, turned her head left and then right, showed him what he had done, what he had accomplished. Andrew laughed and tears streaked his cheeks. They kissed. They embraced.
She said, “Andrew,” her voice both tender and raw.
She pulled him atop her with surprising strength, held him close, pushed her hips into his, sighed. Her breath was warm and smoky, like summer picnics and backyard grills. He touched every part of her and marvelled at the wholeness, the completeness of her. And she touched herself, and smiled and laughed, and Andrew realized that, as he discovered her, she was discovering herself. She was virgin territory in the purest sense. Pitcairn before the Bounty. The Moon before Armstrong.
She thrust her hips upward and, abruptly, he was inside her, warm and wet. A gasp hissed passed her lips and he slowed his movements for fear of hurting her. They were hesitant at first, but as they learned each other’s rhythms, and Caroline learned her own, their pace quickened, their breathing deepened, and they pushed and thrust and pulled until they both cried out.
Andrew collapsed atop her and Caroline wrapped her arms around him. They were both greased with sweat and breathing hard like overworked beasts of burden.
Caroline touched his cheek, his lips, his chin, and said, “I love you.”
Andrew swallowed the tightness in his throat and said, “I love you too.”
“I want to know everything about you,” she said. “I want to share in everything that matters to you.”
Andrew nodded, but felt a shiver of apprehension, like the sound of distant thunder. He was most likely unemployed, given he hadn’t been to work in nearly a week, and had no family, few friends—
“Emily,” he said.
“Who?” Caroline asked, curious.
“She’s my best friend.” He leapt out of bed, pulled on his jeans. “You have to meet her, right now.”
Caroline grinned. “I would love to meet her.”
Still slick with their love making, Andrew stood and watched her for a moment. Every single bit of her was perfect, but the whole of her, the totality of her, was beyond words.
He took her smiling face in his hands, kissed her, and, before leaving the bedroom, before leaving the apartment, said, “Emily is going to be so happy to meet you.”
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