Melissa snapped the puzzle piece into place with the sound of breaking bone. “Melissa,” her mother cried, “take it easy, you’re going to bend the pieces that way. Be more careful.”
Her concentration broken, the young girl looked up from the table at the stout woman addressing her from a couple chair widths away. A dull glimmer of understanding chased the tired glaze from her eyes. A smile creased her face. “Sorry, mommy,” she said in typical slurred fashion before resuming her task. With a slightly less-audible snap, she locked another piece into position on the makeshift plywood board, which supported the rapidly developing skeleton of her second, five hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle of the day.
Gladys Norville stared at her daughter in silence for a moment, a faint smile stitched across her lips, albeit a bittersweet one. Because her pretty, blonde, blue-eyed girl, slight of frame but not of heart, was mentally challenged. A month shy of fourteen, her level of intelligence wasn’t expected to top that of a ten year-old; at present, she would be hard-pressed to demonstrate the mental skills of a third grader. And yet, Gladys thought, and yet… how could anyone explain her fantastic talent for constructing puzzles? And for actually building her own?!
Kimba, their ink-black tomcat, picked that exact moment to intrude, snaking his way between her legs, tail tumescent and rigid, almost “dirty” in an odd, sexual way, his soft, throttling purr, rattling against her calves like a sheet of paper caught between the blades of a fan. Gladys jumped, then snickered, and playfully swept the muscular tabby away with her foot. She shook her head and reflected once more on her daughter’s gift.
Melissa had displayed her uncanny ability at an early age, and curiously enough, her genius had first come to light just after her father walked out on the two of them seven years ago. Gladys pondered over that coincidence for a while, as she had done countless times in the past. She gazed tenderly at her daughter, saw the little girl huddled over her puzzle at the dining room table like a general analyzing the deployment of his troops, saw the charged intensity in her eyes, and saw, also, on her face the subtle lines of confusion and frustration underscoring her childlike enthusiasm, aging her far beyond her years.
Why had such a cruel joke been played on her daughter? Gladys wondered. And, on the other hand, why had the child become so fascinated, so obsessed almost, with the myriad shapes and sizes of ordinary jigsaw puzzles? It was a complete mystery to her why the girl’s mind had taken on that peculiar bent. But then, she realized, the mind was a complex puzzle in itself---whether it was rational, challenged, or insane. And, she guessed with a shudder, only a fine line separated one from the other.
A light scratching at the front door pulled her from her musing. She got up quickly and let Kimba out for one of his many daily forays around the neighborhood. As she made her way back to her chair, she stopped beside Melissa and peered over her daughter’s shoulder.
On the table before them rested the just-completed border of the latest puzzle Melissa, herself, had built from scratch. The quality of her homemade version couldn’t compare with any of the hundreds of Milton Bradley models, she had assembled in her short existence---perhaps a dozen times each!---and which now were tucked away in her closet, or climbing the walls of her bedroom, Gladys knew, but there was something very special, very unique, about her crude efforts. The way she pasted together with Elmer’s Glue (for thickness) two or three oversized squares of cardboard, covering the final piece with a sheet of clean, white paper; the way she drew her own pictures with a set of Magic Markers (nothing more than rough scenes or sketches) on this paper; and the way she painstakingly carved up the finished product with an Exacto knife into tiny, intricate puzzle pieces. A warm tear slid down Gladys’s cheek, followed closely by its mate; she sniffled.
To actually observe firsthand what her daughter was capable of doing, in spite of her handicap, was awe inspiring, yet at the same time a little frightening; because it didn’t seem normal, didn’t seem natural for someone so young and naïve to possess such enormous mental and manual dexterity. And it scared her too, when she considered the possibility that the girl’s blossoming talent was nowhere near fully-developed, but merely in its infant stage. There really was no way of knowing, Gladys thought, how much more she could hone her fantastic skills.
“Come on, honey,” Gladys said, rubbing her moist eyes and affectionately dropping a hand on the top of her daughter’s head. “Time to pack up and help me set the table for dinner.”
Sometime later that evening, a few hours after their dishes had been cleared away, Gladys suddenly realized that Kimba hadn’t returned from his latest jaunt. Sneaking a peek at her daughter, who was at the table once again, hunched over her puzzle board and slapping pieces together with metronomic-like regularity, she walked over to the picture window in the living room and parted the drapes.
Night had fallen outside, a curtain of darkness as heavy as a blanket. A crisp breeze investigated the partially-cracked window. Gladys leaned on the glass, closing it completely and cutting off the few nighttime sounds—the whine of a car engine, a dog’s bark, the slam of a door---that had so recently found their way into the house. She sighed and glanced around outside, knowing it wasn’t unusual for Kimba to roam the area this late, sometimes all evening, but worrying about it just the same. Yet she could see nothing out-of-the-ordinary out front---a quiet street, dark, save for the intermittently spaced pools of light cast by streetlamps; neighboring homes shut off from the world and bracing for the night; passersby out for a leisurely stroll; and off to the side, a pair of bloated, plastic garbage bags squatting by the curb like bums. Snorting her disappointment, it was just as she was about to let the drapes fall that a familiar shape darted into view.
Leaving the curtains peeled, she tracked Kimba’s progress as he slinked across the street and through the muted cones of light, heading home. Suddenly, a vise-like fist gripped her insides and twisted; a bitter taste flooded her mouth. Something was wrong with him, she was almost certain of it! Because as he passed beneath the nearest streetlight, barely thirty feet from the warmth and safety of home, she saw that, unbelievably, part of him was…missing. As if a large, ragged section from his back and rear end had been torn completely off of his body! Maybe he was hit by a car, she thought quickly, gripping the curtains so hard she almost pulled them off the rod, or maybe he was injured in a vicious fight with another of the neighborhood toms. But, then again, she wondered, why wasn’t he limping? Why was he, instead, still advancing toward the front porch, knifing through the darkness at a steady pace, as if nothing was wrong?
Crack! Melissa snapped yet another piece into place on her puzzle board, jarring Gladys from her anguished thoughts. Breath caught in her throat like a piece of food; the curtains slipped from between her fingers. She gathered her wits, ponderously covered the half-dozen steps to the front door, hesitated, then let her trembling hand find the doorknob. Swinging the door wide open, her muffled cry was cut short as Kimba bounded into the house, healthy and whole. Heart pounding with excitement, she clutched the top button of her blouse out of nervous habit, while the big cat nuzzled her feet and rubbed up against her ankles.
“Mommy?” Melissa called from the dining room.
Trick of the light, Gladys thought, briskly scratching beneath the cat’s chin, returning his affection, that’s what it had to be---a trick of the light, and my own overactive imagination. She sighed, answered her daughter. “What, honey?”
“Nothing,” she said calmly, catching and holding her daughter’s attention. “Go back to your puzzle, sweetheart.”
“Okay,” Melissa replied with a frown.
In a moment, however, the typewriter-like clacking of puzzle pieces finding their homes, competed with Kimba’s relaxed purring and sporadic meows. And when the cat finally grew tired of being pampered, prancing away like a spoiled child, Gladys watched him go long after his tail disappeared down the hall, as if to convince herself that he actually was here, and that he physically was all right. Then she turned around and headed for the table to check on her daughter.
Quietly poking her head over the girl’s shoulder, Gladys surveyed the puzzle picture taking shape before her. A scowl tugged at her features; a chill danced up her spine. Because her daughter’s latest creation---nearly complete now---both upset and disturbed her. It depicted, in her unique, childish flair, one of the houses on their block (perhaps our own, she thought) as seen from the street. In the foreground stood several figures (children from the neighborhood, she guessed), some merely stick-like while the others were more fully defined in size and form; in the background posed Kimba (?), about to enter the house through the front door; and in the house itself, seemingly hiding next to one of the front windows, was a woman’s face, older-looking and sad (my own? she wondered).
“Whose house is that, honey?” Gladys asked, struggling to mask her growing unease.
“Mine,” Melissa replied innocently enough, twisting her head around.
“And who are those people?” Gladys went on, an ice-cold lump of fear settling heavily in her stomach when she allowed her gaze to dwell on the mismatched figures—
---and noticed the malicious sneers painted onto almost all of the boys’ and girls’ faces---
---twisting their features into lurid, skeleton-like effigies, and throwing the whole mood, the whole complexion of the picture into stark relief.
Warm perspiration pimpled her upper lip and rivulets of hot sweat trickled down the sides of her neck, offsetting the fingers of ice crawling slowly up her back. Was the girl serious? She thought. In her mind’s eye she replayed all of the mean and vicious stunts her daughter’s so-called “friends” had pulled on her over the past few years: The time they ambushed her as she walked to the special education school she attended three times a week, knocking her down and trashing the puzzle she had made specifically for her class project; the time they invited her to participate in one of their ballgames and ended up beaning her in the head intentionally with a softball; the time they bound and gagged her so they could scribble the word “RETARD” in bright red lipstick all over her face, arms and legs; the time they force-fed her spoonfuls of dirt until she became violently ill; and all the other times they had hurt and humiliated her, far beyond the acceptable limits of simple childhood fun and games… Gladys shook her head in confusion and dismay.
The face in the house suddenly snagged her attention. “Who…who’s standing beside the window?” she indicated with a nod.
“Thass you, Mommy,” Melissa said, smiling.
Me, she thought, hands trembling and body shaking. She swallowed hard. Continuing to stare at the puzzle, her gaze drifted over to the cat, obviously Kimba, who was stepping through the yawning front door. There was something odd about that, too, she realized after awhile, something peculiar in the way the cat was…positioned? she wondered, unable to put her finger on it; or did it have something to do with the fact that the area around Kimba was still incomplete, as gaping holes pocked the section, isolating the notched, interlocking configuration of pieces that embodied their sinewy pet. What is it? she asked herself! And, as if in a dream, her hand descended to the table, drawn like a magnet to the awkward cardboard representation of their cat.
“No!” cried Melissa, shielding the puzzle with her arms and upper body. “Don’t touch it!” She glared at her mother with an alien hostility that cut deeply into the woman. Once again, a cold ice pick of terror jabbed Gladys in the back; the seed of doubt planted so recently in her brain suddenly began to grow. And as a sour taste filled her mouth, she forced herself to meet her daughter’s menacing stare.
“C- -calm down, Melissa,” she stammered. “What’s wrong?”
“Nuthin’, Mommy,” the girl said, her brief spark of anger extinguished. Scowling, she added, “Just don’ touch my puzzle, ‘kay?”
Why? Gladys almost asked. Why? But she simply bit her tongue and said, “Sure, honey, whatever you say.” And let the disturbing whirlwind of thoughts and suspicions, like a brewing storm, run loose in her mind for the time being. She attempted once more to reach out to her daughter, to touch her, after she had broken off their clipped conversations and wrapped herself up in her puzzle again; but no matter how hard she tried to slice through the web of fear she discovered she had woven around the girl, she realized that she just couldn’t do it, she just couldn’t pierce that almost palpable veil of mystery and foreboding. She was too frightened, too scared. She could only hope that the stormy tide of emotions warring deep within her young daughter would subside, and not intensify into a raging, full-scale tempest.
The next few days passed without incident. After the puzzle was completed and Gladys had had a chance to examine it carefully while Melissa was at school, she resigned herself to the likelihood that she had read too much into her initial impression of the picture, interpreting her daughter’s base, naïve feelings as venomous and malevolent when, notwithstanding her unnatural blowup that evening, hate and malice had been the furthest thing from the girl’s mind. She had merely been describing in her own fashion the way life around her actually was, Gladys reasoned. At least the woman hoped that was the case: she didn’t know if she could handle the alternative.
A week to the day after their brief flare-up, however, the much-dreaded storm struck. Gladys left work early that afternoon, complaining to her co-workers of mild nausea and chills, and somehow feeling as if she were on a wind-tossed ship at sea. As she tottered up the walkway to her house, a bolt of ice speared her midsection, numbing her to the core. The front door was wide open…
And while, normally, something like that wouldn’t have been any reason to alarm her, the chilling premonition that accompanied it convinced her otherwise. Ignoring her own suffering, she charged up the steps like a woman possessed.
“Melissa!” she shouted. “Melissa!” All the while picturing the grisly image of her daughter splayed out like a rag doll on the kitchen floor, Exacto knife cradled loosely in her hand, as tears of blood leaked from her slit wrists and puddled thickly beside her. Dear God! Gladys thought.
“Melissa!” she cried again, hoarsely, as she bounded through the doorway and her nostrils met the rich, coppery smell of blood, causing her to gag. Oh God! she thought, choking on the overpowering odor, as all her fears crystallized.
Staggering into the living room, her half-eaten lunch climbed up her esophagus; bile seared her throat. It took all of her concentration and willpower just to remain on her feet and not become sick.
Melissa! a voice in the back of her head cried out, urging her on. Heart racing, cold sweat dappling her skin like pinpricks, she pushed forward into the dining room, her daughter’s name echoing off her lips. She skidded to a halt. The ripe scent of blood assaulted her nose again, much stronger this time.
Standing poised in front of the table was her little girl, completed puzzle of the house and nasty children before her, hand waving a gore-slicked knife high overhead, as if she were conducting an orchestra. Their eyes met. Gladys jerked around---tried to scream but couldn’t, all her pain and anguish locked deep within her ever-tightening windpipe.
She saw, though: saw the fresh, purple bruise nesting above the girl’s left eye; saw the raw scrape marks decorating her elbow and knees; saw all the bodies (How did she get them to come here?!), severed limbs, and ocean of blood covering the kitchen floor like a slaughterhouse, and realized that this time the kids---her “friends”---had pushed her just a little too far. And in so doing, they had unwittingly unleashed Melissa’s hidden talent, accelerating its growth, until it ultimately assumed hideous proportions.
Too stunned to move, Gladys could only watch in horror as the young girl---her zombie-like face betrayed by the barest hint of a smile---brought her knife into play on the puzzle board, the conductor continuing her symphony. Using the small blade, she expertly inserted its tip into the crack between two puzzle pieces and flicked out a single piece (one of the sneering boys, Gladys thought) into the air. Simultaneously, a curious movement in the kitchen, like a light winking out, told Gladys that a large part of one of the bodies had just…disappeared. She gulped hard, reflecting back on the night a week ago when she thought Kimba had been injured, but her constricted throat wouldn’t let her swallow.
Still frozen in place, she saw Melissa’s hand fall to the puzzle again in a sweeping arc, and for the first time Gladys noticed the weeping red lines, like veins, crosshatching the surface of the board---nicks and slashes from the knife! With surgeon-like precision, her daughter carved a long, deep groove through the cardboard neck of another of the puzzle figures; blood oozed from the wound like ketchup. And from the bowels of the kitchen something heavy tumbled wetly to the floor. A wide grin wrinkled Melissa’s face.
And even as a siren wailed in the distance and her sickened mother found voice enough to scream, Melissa raised her Exacto knife yet again, determined to finish her masterpiece.
Did you like the story? you can check out more of William C Rasmussen's writing via his published collection of short stories on kindle at amazon.com