The first puzzle piece arrived on a torrid July afternoon.
Laura was outside in the summer heat when the piece rained from the sky, directly into her head. After some cursing, she snatched the offending thing from the sidewalk: a wooden jigsaw cut, entirely black. It gave off a light stench of sulfur and was very hard. She looked up, but saw only blue. The puzzle piece went in her hip pocket.
The second came the next day, in her change at the grocery. Laura separated it from the coins and held it dubiously to her face, remembering the first and its mystery. This one, also, was a night-black splatter of wood, of the same approximate size, and stinking quietly of sulfur.
She extended it to the cashier. “The hell is this?”
“Say?” said the elderly man.
Laura shoved the piece closer, enough to reflect in the cashier’s glasses. “This! This puzzle piece!”
The cashier looked down, almost cross-eyed. “Yes sir. A puzzle piece, right there.”
“You gave it to me. In my change.”
The cashier shook his head. “No. Don’t believe I did.”
Laura sighed as only frustrated women can. She pocketed the puzzle piece and left with her foods.
A new piece came daily, all vaguely sulfurous and depicting darkness. One was lurking in the mail, thickening the pile. One came from a toothless beggar to which Laura had donated, the man only smiling and nodding when questioned. Another was discovered when Laura developed a clogged drain, the plumber fishing it out with a funny look.
Equal parts intrigued and terrified, Laura fetched a tray and began assembling the puzzle.
After three more days, in which the pieces invaded her laundry, a bowl of soup, and her cat’s hairball, the puzzle was complete save for its very center, two pieces wide. The first came when Laura got in her car and sensed a tumor in the seat, harassing her tailbone. She felt around it and moaned, knowing the shape. She put it off as long as she could, then butchered the cushion with a knife and removed what she knew she would find. She inspected the seat for long afterward, finding no clue of the piece’s origins. She went inside and clicked it home.
Days passed, and just when Laura thought the final piece wasn’t coming, her left forearm took to itching. Within a day it had developed a plaintive and growing ache, like a bad tooth poked. After another, she could swear she felt something moving in there.
The next morning, Laura awoke to find a hard, calcareous growth just below the skin. She at once recognized its complex outline. “No, no,” she said, shaking a head that had gone pale. “No, no.” She prodded the growth though it hurt to do so. While making the doctor’s appointment, her voice showed surprising calm.
The doctor was bald and smocked, with a school-principal intensity. His eyes became whiter during the examination, and he asked many questions Laura could not answer. The doctor scheduled emergency surgery, and after the patient was numbed and opened up, a gasp worked through the operating room, followed by a heavy clink. Laura made it a point that she wanted the excavated object. After more unanswerable questions, she was sewn up and discharged.
Laura studied the incomplete puzzle for a long time, considering its piecemeal arrival and her sanity. She would tease the final piece above its hole, only to draw back and think more; it felt like chess. When she at last fit it home, its instating proved anticlimactic. Laura was left with a window-sized tableau of perfect black, and her questions.
A.A. GARRISON is a twenty-nine-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of small-press zines and anthologies, both in print and online. His first novel, The End of Jack Cruz, is now available from Montag Press. He blogs at synchroshock.blogspot.com.