Picking Up The Pieces by AJ Hawkins

Kristy waved frantically, desperately trying to push him away. The knife in his hand gleamed in the sunlight shining through the kitchen window. It was such a beautiful day… he seemed so calm as he grabbed a handful of her long hair, holding it above her head. She was powerless to resist as the point of the blade pierced her neck. A moment later she caught a hazy glimpse of herself in a nearby mirror, with nothing below her blood-dripping severed neck…

She awoke sitting bolt upright, screaming, brandishing her pillow at thin air. Her skin was damp with cold sweat. Throwing the quilt to one side, she used the dull light of dawn peeking through a tiny gap in the curtains to scan her body and the sheets, but there was no blood. It was all just a dream… only it wasn’t. It was a terrifyingly vivid recurring memory.

Calming herself lest she do herself an injury, Kristy realised then just how big, empty and cold her bed had become. Her old life was irrecoverably gone… why couldn’t things have stayed the same, just for a little longer?

A glance at the clock revealed that it was only two; little wonder she still felt so incredibly groggy. She’d had nowhere near enough sleep, but that pesky little scamp called sleep had escaped her for the day. Though she had nowhere to go and nothing to do, she decided to get up. Her psychiatrist had insisted it was best to maintain at least some sense of routine anyway. She yearned for the day when she would awaken feeling alert and refreshed. To just have that one salubrious sleep… perhaps then she’d be able to believe that she would eventually be able to get on with her life, rather than being stuck inside all day every day being useless. It was that feeling she begrudged the most.

Kristy headed straight for the bathroom, performing her new daily routine, which involved spending a long moment staring at herself in the mirror. The bags under her eyes were turning yellow now, a definite improvement over their previous shade of a purple so deep it was nearly black.

She drew a deep, anxious breath and did the thing she dreaded the most: carefully removing the soft brace from around her neck. Once it was off, she placed it atop the cistern before even more carefully unwrapping the thick, mildly pus-soaked bandage, slowly revealing her surely-should-have-been-fatal wound. The skin above the line was still considerably more pallid than that below, but the contrast was slowly lessening. Although it looked like it should be incredibly sore, it was thankfully just numb.

Scared to tilt her head, Kristy reached blindly for the flannel, running it under the slow-to-get-hot tap for a moment before wringing it out then carefully dabbing it along the vicious scar lined with fine black shoelace-like stitches. Her next scan was next week. She hoped to one of the many deities she didn’t truly believe in that at least her spine had fused. That was the most crucial part, because who knew how much longer whatever was keeping her alive would last?

Her doctor had told her there was always the option of a clasp, but she didn’t want a detachable head. All Kristy wanted was for her head to be firmly and permanently attached to her body. Surely that wasn’t too much to ask? How much time and patience would that even take?

Downstairs, she brushed a hand over the near-black hand-shaped bloodstain on the hallway wall on her way to the kitchen. Cleaning it off was a little too strenuous just yet. She used the still-relatively-new gas hob to make herself a lukewarm coffee and a bowl of runny porridge, which was the closest thing to solid food she could eat. It was kind of funny; as a kid she’d hated the stuff. Maybe it just seemed so good now because it was all she was allowed, and it was an upgrade from baby food. Maybe her tastes had changed over time, or maybe her mum’s porridge really had been that bad. It didn’t matter, of course, but when you spent all day every day at home recovering, the mind began to wander.

Kristy ate and drank while flicking through the crudely-printed weekly newspaper resting atop the dining table. It still seemed so strange to once again be using mobile print, until recently a relic of an age she’d never known. Everything had been put back hundreds of years by the sudden cessation of photonic power, and it was impossible to know how long it would last. Things might never be the same again. Maybe it was for the best. Though it was strange, she found it curious just how quickly people had adapted. She’d heard that society was largely better for being split into smaller communities, which was good, since they might well be in this mess for the long haul. Might as well make the best of it.

Part of her wondered whether she’d live to see an HV broadcast or talk to her friends online via BestBuddies ever again. She didn’t even know how many of them had survived the tremors. Maybe she was better off not knowing; out of mind, and all that.

Progress was slow, but the world was getting back on its feet. No one dared speak about the state of the economy, which lay in as much ruin as the city itself. At least the papers were being open and honest about that; a welcome change from the corporate-controlled secrecy-laden media of old. That said, she still didn’t really trust the ‘new’ corporation. No one really did, not any more, but at least they could say so without fear of reprisal. Sure, the corp had cleaned up its act of late, but only a fool would bet their survival on it. There was a fundamental level of mistrust there that was buried too deep to ever be rooted out.

Just as Kristy finished her breakfast there was an unexpected knock at the front door. She answered it promptly, too grateful at the idea of even momentary company to consider that it was likely to be the very last person she wanted to see… Dexter. He stood on her doorstep expectantly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. It took every ounce of self-control she possessed to keep from screaming and attacking him. Such foolishness would only impede her recovery.

“Hi,” he said meekly. “I’m sorry I didn’t come to see you sooner.”

“I’m not.”

“I suppose I can’t blame you.”

Kristy barked, “You suppose!? After what you did!” She reminded herself to keep calm; just that little outburst had left her feeling rather light-headed.

“I have a lot of explaining to do. I owe you at least that. But not out here. I know there aren’t many people about, but I think it’s best to discuss the matter in private. May I… come inside?”

Kristy wanted to ask, Why, so you can finish the job without any witnesses? but decided he would only continue to bother her if she refused. It was better to get it over with.

“Fine. You have ten minutes.”

Dexter stepped inside, closing the door softly behind himself.

“Tea?” Kristy asked out of habit.

“Very kind of you to offer such kind hospitality, but I don’t deserve it.” Dexter grabbed a tissue from the open box atop the cabinet just inside the front door and blew his nose.

“I hope that isn’t a cold. I could do without catching one of those right now. I can just imagine what would happen if I sneezed.”

“I’m sure it’s just the weather making my nose run,” he dismissed. “Pretty flowers. Who are they from?”

“My mother.”

“Oh. I was thinking about sending you some, only…”

“Only you’re you,” Kristy sighed.

“I was going to say I thought you might find it a tad… inappropriate.”

“You could say that, after what you did.”

“I’m sorry. I’m stupid, you know that. I’ve thought about it every day since it happened. How is your neck, anyway?”

She gave him The Look. “How about I decapitate you, then you can find out for yourself!”

Dexter stared down at the floor. “Would that really make you feel better? If so, we can go into the kitchen now and get it over with.”

“Don’t tempt me. That would make me no better than you.”

“I’m not all bad. I came to visit you in hospital, you know, only they wouldn’t let me see you.”

“I know.”

“You saw me?”

“I heard you talking to one of the nurses… I’d really hoped I’d imagined it, that it was all just a bad dream.”

“I wish they’d let me see you, just to know that you were okay… they wouldn’t tell me anything.”

“They wouldn’t have been doing their jobs if they had. I wasn’t exactly in a fit state for visitors. I don’t remember all that much, to be honest… just a kind of mental numbness. I drifted in and out of sleep… they kept me heavily sedated. I’m not even sure how long it was before they reattached my head, but I remember waking up and seeing a tray half-filled with liquid around my neck. It didn’t occur to me right away what had happened until I saw a body laying on a bed in front of me, and I realised it was mine… there were all these tubes sticking out of my neck. I could see the doctors and nurses moving me, taking my pulse, poking and prodding, only I couldn’t feel a thing. To say it was surreal would be a considerable understatement.”

“I can’t even imagine. Kris, I’m so sorry for what I did to you. It was a stupid mistake. Believe me when I say that I would never harm you.”

She was momentarily paralysed by incredulity. “Never harm me!? You cut my head off! As far as harming me goes I’m pretty sure it doesn’t get much worse than that! What exactly did you think you would achieve?”

Dexter turned away, unable to look at her as he spoke. “I’m sorry! I didn’t think it was you in there any more.” His voice was thin and reedy. “You came staggering at me with your hands held out in front of you, like you were going to throttle me. I called to you, but you didn’t answer. I thought you’d become a drone. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t know what else to do… I tried to run away… I got as far as the kitchen, but you followed… I thought it was you or me. The knives were the only defence I had to hand. I hated the idea of it, I desperately tried to think of some other way of stopping you. Whatever I did was bound to be wrong, so I just acted. But then you spoke, and I realised what I’d done. I sat there for ages, cradling you, wishing things could have been different. When the ambulance came and the paramedics said they might be able to save you, I was so relieved… then I wondered, what if it was me who had become the drone? Maybe that thought alone proved that I wasn’t… I don’t know. You always said I watch too many movies… I guess you were right. I must have lost my grip on reality. But can you honestly say that if I’d been the one coming at you, you wouldn’t have done the same?”

Kristy didn’t want to answer, but reluctantly replied in a hushed voice, “I suppose not. But… just tell me one thing… had you been drinking that day?”


“Before the incident I found a stack of old beer cans behind the sofa.”

“Oh. That. Sorry, I meant to clear those up…”

“You mean you meant to destroy the evidence?”

“I don’t drink that much!” She glared at him. “Alright, alright… I may have had one or two… but I wasn’t drunk, if that’s what you’re asking…”

“You have a problem, Dex. I want to help you…”

“Why? Why would you care about me, after what I did? It’s not like there’s much point now. I mean, I’ve ruined things for good. The one thing I had in the whole world that made me happy, and I had to go and mess it up.” Dexter shook his head sadly. “I love you, Kris, you have to understand that… I thought I was doing you a kindness. I felt like such a moron. I still do.”

“So you bloody well should! I wasn’t trying to hurt you, I was coming to you for help! There was a pain in my head, a kind of pressure, and I couldn’t speak. Hell, I could hardly stand, that’s why I was staggering… I saw you grab the knife but I couldn’t move… I was powerless to stop you, the one person in the whole world who I thought would never hurt me, no matter what. Now I wake up every morning fearing my head will have dropped off in the night, that I’ll be lying there helpless, waiting to die, or worse.”

“I wish things could have been different… but we can’t change the past, can we? All I can do is change my future, try to make it better.”

“Well it’s about bloody time… I just wish it hadn’t taken this to make you realise it.”

“Please… there must be something I can do?”

She contemplated this for a moment. “Well, since I haven’t been able to do any housework since leaving hospital, there are a number of chores that need doing… but why would you start doing them now? You never did before I kicked your sorry arse out.”

“I know… I didn’t realise how selfish I was at the time. I took you for granted, I see that now… I’ve changed. Really. I just need a chance to prove it to you.”

“Why to me?”

“Because you’re the only one who matters to me.”

Kristy couldn’t mask the slight smile this remark elicited. But could people really change?

“Tell me what needs doing,” Dexter insisted.

“Fine. You can start by sweeping the floors. I’d prefer them to be vacuumed, but, well, you know…”

“No power. I get it. I’ll do what I can.” He turned away and sneezed. “Shit… sorry… maybe I do have a cold. I should probably go.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. Someone mentions work and you just turn and run.” Dexter stood before her, silent. “At least you aren’t denying it. Go on, then. Get lost. Go sit on your arse and get drunk. You’ll always be a waste of space.”

“Is that what you really think of me?”

“What I really think is that you are the most indolent person I know. You’re not stupid… mostly… but you just can’t be bothered to apply yourself. Everything’s just too damned difficult.”

“I don’t have the first idea how to do anything!”

“Oh, don’t give me that crap! That’s always your excuse! You may have noticed that things have changed. What better opportunity for a fresh start? Go and find someone who needs your help, and actually help them. You know, in some ways I think you wanted the world to end… then you’d have finally had a valid excuse for not doing anything with your life.”

“You think I enjoy lazing around the house all day?”

“Considering how much time you spent boasting to your mate on the phone about your gamerscore, frankly yes, I do.”

“At least that mate let me use his spare room. If not I’d be out on the streets, freezing my nads off.”

“It’s no less than you deserve.”

“I know. You’re right.”

A thought occurred to her: “You know, if you really do want to help, I need a few groceries.”

He nodded. “Sure. I can do that.”

Kristy turned one of her precious blue food chips over in her hands several times before finally handing it to him. “Here. Get me whatever you can. Just… don’t waste it on booze.”

He looked her in the eye. “I’ve let you down far too many times. I won’t any more. I’ll be as quick as I can.”

And he set off. Kristy closed the door behind him and began pacing around the front room, her head a cocktail of conflicting emotions.

Kristy was well aware that she wasn’t the first woman in the world to have suffered violence at the hands of the man she loved, the man she thought loved her, but she had to remind herself that it was just one instance. Singular. Nothing else; no mind games, no threats. It didn’t work — it was impossible to forget that it had been an act of such violence, of intended finality. Should a person be punished based on what they intended to do, or what they actually accomplished? Both needed to be measured out; an accidental murder surely wasn’t as bad as a premeditated one. On the other hand, what if the murder was premeditated, yet failed due to some bizarre cosmological hiccup? Kristy had no idea how to weigh that one up.

Kristy cast her mind back three years, to when they had first met. Dexter had been so sweet, this quiet unassuming boy sitting on a short wall reading a book on his compu-phone. How many times had she nudged him to get his attention? Her last attempt at getting a lad’s attention before that — splashing him as he sat on the side of a swimming pool at a holiday resort — had failed miserably, so she knew she needed to be more direct. But she’d always been a bag of nerves when trying to pick up boys, even though all her friends told her she was pretty. Kris had never really believed them; it felt like the kind of thing friends would say to make her feel better about not having been as genetically lucky. But over time, Kristy had grown more comfortable in her own skin, though she still wasn’t quite ready to start wearing low-cut tops and a skirt just yet. Maybe one day.

Something she had done must have worked though, because although Dexter hadn’t said much when she’d sat beside him, pretending to mind her own business while occasionally nudging his arm with her elbow, he had been there again the next day with a bunch of flowers sitting beside him. At first she’d thought perhaps he was meeting another girl, and that was why he’d ignored her previous advances. But then he’d turned to her, held the flowers up, and had said softly, “Hi, I’m Dexter.”

She had taken the flowers from him in a state of semi-disbelief; no one had ever bought her flowers before. “They’re beautiful,” she had cooed. “But flowers are so expensive, you shouldn’t have…”

“I wanted to. Listen, I don’t know about you but I’m hungry. Would you like something to eat?”

“I’d love to, only I don’t have much spare cash…”

He’d laughed, and she’d been instantly smitten. “No, silly. It’s on me.”

“Are you sure? But we’ve only just met…”

“I’m asking you out. Are you interested or not?”

For a person who tried to get attention via playful, almost child-like means, Kristy suddenly realised she was completely missing the point. “Oh. Er… yes. Please.”

“Then let’s go.” Dexter smiled, proffering his right hand. She took it, holding it firmly. His skin was so warm and soft.

“Where shall we go?”

“Lady’s choice. What’s your favourite meal?”

“I guess it would have to be sweet and sour phesan.”

“Perfect. I love Vahirinese. There’s a place just around the corner that does the best blue bean boumive…”

“I’m Kristy, by the way.”

“Beautiful name. Do you mind if I call you Kris?”

“Please do. May I call you Dex?”

A casual shrug. “Most people do. I’m not worried what people call me, as long as I know they’re talking to me.”

It hadn’t taken too long for Dexter’s various character flaws to begin to surface, such as never again buying her flowers or chocolates without the need for a few less-than-subtle hints, but in spite of that he was the kindest person Kristy had ever met, having insisted they went to see her friend Elsie right away when her mother passed away, and from that kindness had blossomed a love she never could have imagined. And his touch in the bedroom had been so delicate, yet so satisfying… he knew how to meet her every sexual desire. Such memories made her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but now all that seemed so long ago. Now, there were days when Kristy hated Dexter so much she wished she’d never met him, and she despised that crippling, futile rage. She forgot who said it, but she’d read years ago that hating someone was like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die, and she realised now just how true that was. She wanted to be able to forgive him, if only for her own peace of mind, but the theory and the practice were two distinctly different things, and she would be the first to admit that she was no saint. Yet, for all her mistakes, Dexter had always forgiven her. Now the shoe was finally on the other foot, could she do the same? Perhaps it was better to give him the benefit of the doubt; after all, the spirits alone knew there was already more than enough animosity in the world. This wasn’t the time to hold on to grudges.

She recalled reading a story about a man who had lost everything — his wife, his three children (two boys and a young girl) — when a teenage trio claiming they were seeking shelter to give a crowd of pursuing ‘drones’ the slip had robbed and trashed his house. That man had wanted nothing more than to simply end it all, yet he wasn’t able to. He said he felt that his misery was designed, as if by one of those spirit deities that people had been increasingly turning to of late, to inspire him to help others who had been even less fortunate. Kristy was certainly struggling to think of anyone less fortunate than that particular man. There was deep pain etched in his face in the single photo of him squatting amongst orphans of the incident, but also some semblance of hope.

This memory really put things into perspective for Kristy. On the other hand, just because others had it worse, did that really lessen her own horrific experience? She thought not; it seemed that people used that phrase as an excuse to make an injustice look comparatively insignificant rather than addressing the real issue.

Kristy tried to simplify her options: let Dex back into her life and live in uncertainty, or shut him out and be alone. It wouldn’t be easy learning to trust him again. Something so easily destroyed would take a long time to rebuild.

She knew what her friends would say if she spoke such thoughts aloud, that she was insane, too much of a soft touch, and perhaps they’d be right. But could they honestly say, were they in her position, that they would throw everything away over what might be nothing more than a misunderstanding and a heavy dose of severe paranoia?

But was it just paranoia? She couldn’t fight the feeling that his attempt to kill her had been born of some secret, deep-seeded desire. After all, over the years they’d had more than their fair share of spats, some more volcanic than others… was her mind twisting things now, rather than back then? She just wanted to get past this so she could make her damned mind up.

She was jolted back to reality by the sound of knocking on the door once again. Dexter stood on the doorstep with a canvas bag full of food. He handed it her; it didn’t feel particularly heavy. “One of those chips doesn’t get much, does it? I did manage to get you some sweet and sour sauce and some frozen phesan breasts, though… I remember you like those.”

She smiled at the sentiment. “I can’t even remember the last time I had that…” He then handed her a bunch of flowers he’d been hiding behind his back.

“I saved one of my own chips so I could get you these.”

She took them, glad of the sentiment if not entirely believing of the story. “You soppy bugger. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

They stood silently either side of the open door for several moments. Damn that bastard for being so sweet and reminding her of the good times… and they did have many, and they had been sooo good…

“Alright,” she sighed. “You can come in for a quick cuppa.”

Dexter stepped over the threshold wearing a wide smile, closing the door behind himself. Without a word, he grabbed the stiff-brushed broom with the metal handle and did his best to sweep at the old carpet. After a while he said to Kristy, “I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do… and it still looks crap.”

“It looks better than it did. I’ve never seen you work so hard. It makes a nice change.”

“Er… thanks? I’m trying. You know, I’ve never brushed carpets before… there must be a knack to it.”

“You’ll get better at it.”

“You mean you’ll give me a chance?”

“As long as you don’t mess up, we’ll see how things go.”

He wiped the sweat from his brow. “You said there was more you wanted me to do?”

She handed him his mug of tea. “You’re exhausted. You should rest.”

“Not until I’ve proved myself.”

“You won’t get there in a day. If you’re really in it for the long haul you need to have patience. You have to work at it every single day.”

He nodded. “I will. I promise.”

She suddenly felt all warm and fuzzy again, like some semblance of her lost life had been restored. There was no way to put life back to how it had been before the incident, but small things could be restored. This was one of them, and it was entirely within both their power to do just that. Perhaps then those nightmares might finally stop. And maybe a little bit of gentle sex might help with the healing.

AJ Hawkins http://www.zenpub.org/


2 thoughts on “Picking Up The Pieces by AJ Hawkins

  1. On the one hand, I like this, especially the shock of finding out that the severed head is a memory, not a nightmare.
    However, I couldn’t buy into the rest of it. I get the whole abuse angle and the rationalization, but I couldn’t quite get into what was going on between Dex and Kris.
    Also, there’s not enough of why the technology is so advanced if all of this is post-apocalyptic.

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