The Puzzle by Jeremy Salvucci

Alan was puzzled. To be precise, Alan was puzzled by a puzzle. To be even more precise, Alan was puzzled by a puzzle that would not otherwise have been particularly puzzling, save for the fact that he had nearly completed it, only to find himself in a unique conundrum.

Alan's conundrum was this: when he reached that satisfying point in a puzzler's occupation at which he or she has attenuated both the number of empty spaces, and that of remaining pieces, to one, and now may place the final puzzle piece into the final puzzle place, achieving some degree of mundane victory—at this moment, he came to the realization that his only remaining puzzle piece did not correspond to the single, vacant spot left in his puzzle.

Puzzles were not Alan's hobby, nor was he particularly fond of them; that was, in contrast with the other forms of menial amusement at his disposal. In fact, contrary to popular belief, no one really, truly enjoys puzzles. Some people appear to think that, although they themselves do not like puzzles, there are others, somewhere out there, who do. This is incorrect. One might conjure an image of an elderly woman, sitting blissfully by her window, drinking her afternoon tea and working on a puzzle that, when completed, would display the beautiful image of an Azalea.—Even this woman does not enjoy puzzles. And this is not because she is hypothetical and hence cannot enjoy anything, nor is it because she's allergic to flowers; but, rather, because puzzles, by their very nature, are bad things.

Christians might argue that puzzles cannot be bad because they, like everything else, are creations of God, and are therefore good natured. Buddhists might argue that puzzles cannot be bad because they are not, in fact, separate from the self, which is not, in fact, separate from the universal, which is good natured. Others might argue that puzzles cannot be bad because they are, in fact, inanimate objects, and therefore cannot be possessed by either good nor bad nature, and are decidedly neutral. Whatever the case may be, any assertion that puzzles are not bad is a bad assertion that is certainly not right.

So why, then, do people undertake to solve puzzles? In Alan's case, as it was in most cases, the decision came out of boredom.

It was on a hot evening, and almost the precise midpoint of Alan's summer vacation, that he found himself beginning a puzzle that he had come across while rummaging through the bins under his bed that contained the various forgotten toys and miscellanies of his adolescence up until that point. Before settling for no particular reason on the puzzle, Alan passed up a Bop-It, several binders containing sleeves full of Magic cards, and a coffee table book about the Amazon river. The puzzle, when completed, was meant to display a remarkable image of deep space, captured by the Hubble telescope.

As compared to the vast majority of puzzles on the market at the time, the one of which Alan was this fortunate as to come into ownership was of barely moderate difficulty, and possessed no remarkable qualities. Its unimpressive nature neither bothered nor enthused him; he merely permitted it to occupy his time. He assembled it at a routine pace, unwittingly restraining himself that he might not rush, so as to prolong the activity for as long as possible. It was only upon near completion of the puzzle that matters began to complicate.

###

Eliza, a strong willed but markedly considerate girl who lived across from Alan and attended his school, happened to be looking out of her second-floor window as the pacing began.

Pacing is considered, by most, to be a harmless habit, and those who consider it such are largely correct in this assumption. However, when pacing is remarked in an individual for whom the habit is not a habit at all, but rather a freak occurrence, there is most definitely cause for alarm. Unfortunately, strong willed Eliza, although outfitted with the best of intentions, did not know this, and therefore dismissed her happenstance viewing of Alan's pacing as an ordinary event, paying it no mind whatsoever.

This pacing increased in both velocity and intensity as he brooded over various explanations for his unique predicament. How could the single remaining piece fail to correspond with the solitary space left in the puzzle? Normally he wasn't one to dwell on such inconsequential matters, but on this particular evening Alan felt that he could not escape the calamity of this nonsensical situation. His growing frustration only fueled his concentration, causing him to pace at an alarming rate.

The ascending tempo of Alan's footsteps grew increasingly audible in the lower level parlor of his Kensington townhouse, in which his mother was attempting to read a dated issue of Vogue. After spending a good five minutes quietly dismissing the mild racket in hopes that, if ignored, it might go away, Alan's mother let out a sigh, that, considering there was no one else around, might have been considered overly emphatic; and she embarked on the tedious journey to her son's second floor bedroom.

It was not Alan's pacing that so startled his mother, as she quite expected something of that sort, based on the noise she'd heard; but, rather, it was that his typically tidy room looked as if it had been bombarded by a fleet of fighter planes of the Second World War. All his belongings were strewn about; the knick-knacks from his desk lay on the floor by his closet, socks from out of his hamper hung from the dresser mirror; his mattress lay bare, the sheets and comforter reduced to a crumpled pile at the foot of his bed. His pockets had been turned inside out; even his hair was in a state of disarray.

“What in Christ is going on?!” demanded Alan's mother, whose nerves were as tight as guitar strings on the verge of snapping and curling.

Alan continued to disassemble his bedroom with increasing fervor. After several additional pleas failed to elicit a response, Alan's mother reached out with an arm to calm him. As her fingers contacted Alan's shoulder, he awoke from his painfully concentrated state with a shriek like the noise a two-hundred year old female ghost would emit were she unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror. The horrible sound was accompanied by a startled jerking of Alan's limbs, one of which, his left arm, collided with his poor mother's temple, sending her hurdling into his oak dresser. Regaining her footing, Alan's mother ran, sobbing, from the room and dialed her husband from the telephone in the kitchen.

Alan's father was only around the corner from the house at his local, so it took him little time to get home once he was able to make sense of his wife's panicked stutterings. He burst through the tasteless maroon door of family's townhouse.

“I… I don't know what's come over him..! Please Jim, for God's sake, do something! I don't know what to do!” Alan's mother stammered through a weak sob.

“Christ,” replied Alan's father, starting up the stairs. He heard little noise as he drew near his teenage son's bedroom, and began to wonder if perhaps his wife had finally cracked, which notion vanished as soon as he opened the door and beheld his son.

Alan's eyes were sunken but wide, thin red veins clearly visible against the stark white of them. His movements were rhythmic, almost ritualistic. At first no sense could be made out of Alan's behavior, but then, all at once, his father understood: his son was systematically selecting various items from around his bed and desk and attempting to put them in a space in his puzzle; a space which none of them would ever realize was supposed to be occupied by a rogue puzzle piece that had become stuck by its imaged side to the underside of the top of the puzzle's box due to a manufacturing error that had endowed it with a tad of extra adhesive. (The underside of the puzzle piece happened to be made from the exact cardboard that had been used to construct the box, rendering it very successfully camouflaged.)

The piece that Alan had thought was the final piece was not a puzzle piece at all, but rather a puzzle piece-shaped calling card that the Puzzletime Puzzle Company included in the boxes of all of their puzzles. This piece was dark and starry colored, like most of the celestially themed puzzle Alan had been working on, and the Puzzletime logo had merely struck Alan as an ordinary, if slightly obtrusive, attempt at branding.

His father approached as Alan attempted to fit, into the vacant spot in his puzzle, a silver dollar he had extracted from the top drawer of his desk. He started towards his son, moving cautiously, his wife's startled anecdote in the forefront of his crowded mind. He circumnavigated the desk, easing himself carefully into Alan's field of view. His presence did not seem to faze the boy, who continued his ritual: selecting an object, assuming a look of hope as he tried it against the shape of the empty spot, then discarding it angrily and moving on to the next.

“Alan!” There was no response. “Alan!!” He placed a stern hand on his son's wrist. Alan considered the newfound presence of his father's appendage briefly, then shook it off with disdain and resumed his irritably neurotic occupation. A moment passed, during which Alan's father sighed, in the fashion of his fashion-obsessed spouse, and a look came over Alan's face that indicated he had an idea.

Alan grabbed the hand that his father had laid upon him a moment earlier and vigorously attempted to thrust it into the empty space in his puzzle.

His father jerked his hand out of Alan's grasp, grabbed his son roughly about the torso and began to drag him towards the door. Alan reached out a delusional hand, and, in an act of desperation, clobbered for his nearly finished puzzle, unintentionally reducing it to a haphazard pile of barely attached pairs; trios of pieces on the floor. He let out a whimper of mourning as he was pulled from the room, his afternoon's great work undone by his own hand.

Alan's mother's sobbing, which had flagged briefly, resumed with newfound ferocity as she saw her son pulled, flailing, down the stairs. Her artificially blonde hair trailing down her forearms, she held her head in her hands: “I can't watch this...” she repeated over and over, as her husband used his free arm to dial an ambulance (for lack of any other sensical idea). After a comically inept attempt at describing the situation to the dispatcher, he hung up and adjusted his grip on Alan's collar.



When the paramedics arrived, they found Alan in a relatively docile state—his bouts of writhing seemed to have tired him out—and so were able to subdue him with relative ease. Alan's father placed a meager hand on his wife's shoulder for comfort as they watched in silence an ambulance drive away with their son.

“We can see him tomorrow,” Alan's father asserted, “they just need to do a professional assessment or something like that, first; they said that was the protocol for these sorts of things.”

That night Jim and Cindy Fairbank drank heavily in different parts of the house.

###

“I'm afraid your son has fallen into a deeply delusional state. It's advisable that we keep him under supervision. He may remain here for two weeks. If he does not improve significantly during that time, we'll advise transferring him to a dedicated impatient facility for long-term treatment. There are several in the neighboring counties; the closest is about forty-five minutes away.”

The doctor's hands were puffy and red from overwashing, Alan's mother was fairly certain she could smell liquor on his breath. But the source of the smell could have just as easily been the chemicals used to maintain the hospital's standards of sanitation.

“Look Doctor,” Alan's father interjected, sounding more cocksure than he had intended, “the boy's had a little episode. Happens all the time, right. Just pop him on some sedatives, we'll take him home and he can rest up for a couple days.”

“I'm afraid we cannot advise that.” The doctor snapped his fingers toward a West Indian nurse was sitting behind a desk and filling out a crossword puzzle. “Deborah, can you pull that kid Fairbank's chart for me?” Which the doctor received from the nurse and through which he began thumbing through. “We will ensure he remains cared for and allow him the space necessary for his mind to relax back into its natural state.”

###

Although the Fairbanks were not allowed to take their son to the facility themselves, they were permitted to ride along with him in the hospital transport. Sadly he was not much for conversation during the ride, nor had he been at any point during the past few weeks, unless one were to count his periodic psychotic outbursts. Jim watched his wife nervelessly as she stared down at Alan lying on his back with his knees raised on a bench seat on one side of the hospital transport van. His eyes were moving at a constant speed back and forth across the van's ceiling, as if he was reading an inscription there.

“Real fine mileage I get on this van,” said the driver. “Not great, by any means. But fine. Better than you'd expect.”

Mrs. Fairbank stared blankly at Alan; Mr. Fairbank glanced at the driver, whose nametag, to his dismay, read JIM.

“'specially considering the thing's nearing on ten years old! And what with the volume of use this thing gets; I bet most big vans would be well on their way to retirement by this age.” The driver paused. “But not this one!” He patted the steering wheel aggressively as he said this, causing the van to swerve slightly and encounter a patch of rougher asphalt on the edge of the road.

“Watch the god-damned road!” yelled one of the two nurses supervising Alan's transport.

The other nurse began to chuckle a little, then let out a gratuitous cough in effort to conceal it. Mrs. Fairbank sent her a tired look that was intended to be harsh, then resumed staring at her son, who remained seemingly oblivious to the exchange. She tried to imagine what things might be going through Alan's head.

An image of an undersea coral reef, teeming with marine life, appeared in her mind. At first she noticed brightly colored fish zig-zagging in and out of shaded crevices; a crab scuttling across the sea floor leaving a powdery trail of upkicked sand behind it; a sea anemone undulating with the tide. The more she focused on the scene, however, the more ordered it seemed to become. The various species slowly began to align in rows and proceed in single directions, each row heading in the opposite direction of the one below. A line of sea horses rhythmically spiraled to the left, while above, a line of blue and yellow striped fish with vacant eyes paddled right, all in increasing unison. The patterns began to quicken and soon the tail of each creature began to merge with the head of the creature to its rear, forming unending trails of brightly colored and intricately patterned marine flesh, all twisting and gyrating as if to some unheard tribal rhythm.

Cindy gasped, realizing she had begun to drift off. She felt relieved to see the interior of the van once again. She looked briefly back at Alan then shifted her gaze to the moving landscape behind the window to her right.

###

The Fairbanks, accompanied by a warder, a bespectacled man with white hair arching over his parietals in wisps, and two uniformed orderlies who commanded Alan's stretcher, rolled down a long hallway, at the end of which the party came to rest in front of the room that was to be Alan's home, which had beige walls, and was sparsely furnished with plastic pieces with rounded corners.

Alan's mother cringed at the furniture's tastelessness, but bit her tongue. Alan surveyed the room with apparent disinterest, then surprised his company by seating himself in the chair in front of the desk, and undertaking to explore its plastic surface with open-palmed hands. He made slow sweeps over the desk, as if to ensure that it was entirely flat; without imperfections.

Any slant could mean having everything fall to pieces again and needing to start all over. That had upset him a great deal last time. Indeed, after his clumsy father had caused him to knock all the pieces off his desk and out of order, it had taken him a great deal of time to get them all back together again. It was much harder after then, you must see, because he didn't have the pieces the way he had them before. He had to conjure each one, mentally, before he could begin to arrange them; and this required a great deal of will and concentration. Then it needed entirely unbroken concentration to manipulate them using only his mind. He often needed to take respites, as he would become struck by the most unbearable headaches; and, above all, he needed a flat surface. When he had tried on the bus, an hour earlier, the pieces kept getting knocked loose and losing their places.