So…I’ve been sitting on this story for a little under a week. It started as another challenge to make something mundane scary. I think I ended up taking too long with it, and I seem to have lost the thread, so I’m going to post what I have. If I decide to I will continue with it later, but I’m not too sure I will. Anyway, enjoy. I’m going to try to write another flash story today so maybe I’ll have another for you before too long.
Tabula Rasa (Working Title)
By E. W. Morrow
She was so close now. All the pieces were finally coming together. First in a literal sense but then, surely, not long until the act was mirrored, figuratively, in the rest of her life. No more lonely nights waiting for her children to call. No more pervy boss looking down at her. Down on her chances for promotion. Down her blouse. No more cheap wine straight from the bottle. Soon, everything would be good again.
First things first, Jane, she thought to herself. She reached inside the tin to her right at pulled out a piece at random. The tin was old and battered. It had once been a deep blue, like cool depths of a calm ocean, but now the corners and edges were scuffed and faded until they were almost white, and the lid looked as if it had been stepped on and hammered back into shape multiple times. Apart from the faded paint and uneven reflections the tin was an unblemished solid color. It gave no hints on its surface to the contents within.
The cardboard puzzle pieces inside were just as blank as the container, flat, unglossed tan on both sides, but in pristine condition, the edges crisp, nubs and corners unbent. There weren’t many of them left in the tin. Most were spread out beside it on the folding card table, and most of those had already been painstakingly fitted together by the patient hands of a puzzle expert. Jane tried the piece in her had, first in one spot, then another. On the third try it slid neatly into place, male and female components of the two pieces interlocking so perfectly that it gave Jane an embarrassed tingle when when she considered the metaphor completely. She took another sip of wine from the bottle at her feet. Then she set it down again gingerly, making sure it came to rest in the bottle shaped indent in the carpet. She couldn’t set it on the table, she reasoned. If it spilled it would ruin the puzzle. Months of work. Possibly her whole life. Better the carpet get one more stain than even one piece of the jigsaw. She was so close now she could taste it, sweeter than grapes, more pleasant than wine.
It had started a few years ago. Actually, it had started just over a decade ago when the kids had left the house for good and that cheating bastard had flown off to Chicago “for business” and had never come back. That was when the bottles had started piling up, when the pu zzle boxes began to fill every closet, every shelf, every corner of every room. She enjoyed doing them. The act of taking something broken into so many pieces and making it whole, making it beautiful, again. And so what if some of them got damp? She always kept a box of tissues nearby to clean the tears from the pieces as they fell. Somehow, it never seemed important enough to wipe them away before that point.
But it had only been two years since she’d heard of the blank puzzle. It popped up one day on an internet message board for puzzle enthusiasts, some unknown stranger asking a whole world full of strangers if they’d ever heard of the unfinished puzzle? What did it look like, someone had asked? Apparently nothing. Just plain cardboard. Don’t they make puzzles like that? Supposed to make them more difficult, right? Yes they do, but not this one. This one’s different. Well who made it then? Not sure. How old was it? Not sure. Do you know anything useful about it to help us identify it for you? Not really. Then why do you want it?
Because it’s special.
That was the last post the thread starter left. For a day or two the other members of the conversation bombarded the thread with questions (Special how? How did you hear about it? Where are you? Why won’t you answer?), but there was no reply. For several months the subject of the unfinished puzzle lay dormant, like a field left fallow for a growing season, and then it cropped up again.
It was a different person than the first, or at least a different user name, and he or she wanted to know more about the unfinished puzzle. Again the thread was subjected to the usual questions, questions that the original poster could not answer. Only this time, newcomers to the forums began to drop single hints before disappearing again, rumors that were always left in sentences without any capitalization or punctuation, like digital whispers.
The puzzle was a window. It could show you things. The past. The future. The puzzle was a door. It set you free. The number of pieces was always changing, only ever enough to be a challenge, but it could always be finished. It was only blank until you finished it. What happened next was a mystery. Some said it showed you things. Others said it came alive. Others still said it vanished, piece by piece, until it was gone forever. It couldn’t be bought or sold, only found. Some claimed to have found it, a few to have finished it. Those that had were reluctant to talk about it, but seemed glad that they had. Nobody ever asked what happened to the ones that found it but didn’t finish it.
One year and nine months after first hearing about the mysterious puzzle Jane found it in a flea market on the edge of town. It was sitting at the bottom of a pile of Thomas Kinkade’s that had been shoved in a corner between rickety bookshelves crammed with dusty spy novels. She’d managed to wriggle the tin without knocking over the entire stack and pried off the bent, battered lid with a clang.
Inside were several thousand crisp, unadorned puzzle pieces. The smell of cardboard wafted from the tin, carrying with it a mixture of memories. Her first apartment. Helping the kids move to their own apartments. Packing her ex-husbands belongings without wrapping them in bubble wrap and shipping them out, third class. And every single puzzle she had ever completed. When Jane asked the stall vendor, a corpulent woman who was wearing a flowery tank top and using a fly swatter to fan her chins, how much she wanted for it the woman laughed a toothless laugh and said there was no charge. The damn thing was a nuisance and she was glad to be rid of it.
By the time she made it home she was convinced that she had found the it: THE unfinished puzzle. That night she cleared off the card table in her puzzle room, sweeping the half finished picture of a flock of hot air balloons drifting lazily through the sky unceremoniously into its box, not bothering to keep it in as few large chunks as possible for later or even caring if all the pieces made it in the box. It wasn’t important.
She had started by doing what any good puzzler did: sifted through the pieces, found the edges and the corners, and separating them from the rest. It took her almost six hours to finish all four edges. There was nothing to indicate which piece went where. No picture on the box. No variation of color or texture. There wasn’t even any way to tell if the pieces were right side up or not, adding yet another dimension to the difficulty.