THE PUZZLE ROOM • by Linda Saldaña

The scene was starting to materialize — a dappled draft horse emerging from the shade of a covered bridge. Mildred loved the proud arch of his neck, the way the brass harness fittings glistened in the summer sun. She squinted at the dog-shaped piece in her hand — four rounded legs and a squared-off bit of nose — but couldn’t find where it went. She was certain it belonged somewhere in the vicinity of the sunflower field.

She glanced at the clock. Any minute now, that Shirley with the pasted-on smile would cruise in with some prospects.  “And this is the puzzle room,” Shirley would say. “Well hello, Mildred. Isn’t that a lovely puzzle?  My, my. Haven’t we made a lot of progress!”

Mildred glanced at the puzzles on the other tables. Greta’s, a radiant array of butterflies, was halfway done. Greta always made a big fat deal whenever she put a piece in place, like it was a race or something. But people who rushed through these things didn’t get to experience the same exquisite anticipation of snapping in the final piece. Rushing wasn’t Mildred’s way. Mildred knew how to savor a puzzle. Hadn’t she been savoring hers for five or six months now?

 Mildred put down one shape and picked up another that reminded her of a turtle. It was bluish-gray — a bit of sky, perhaps, or maybe a patch of water. Mildred rotated it, perplexed.

The door creaked open. “Well, hello, Millie! Working in the dark again?” Shirley flipped on the light. She was leading a stooped, white-haired lady, trailed by a languid young man — the lady’s grown son, probably. “If you like to do puzzles, this is the place for you,” Shirley said to the lady, her manicured hand indicating a bookshelf full of puzzle boxes. “We have a wonderful collection. Some of our residents spend hour upon hour in here.”

They stood over Greta’s butterfly puzzle for a moment. “Isn’t that lovely?” said Shirley. “Greta can put a puzzle together quicker than a wink.”

The young man picked up a piece, examined it for a moment, then snapped it into place.  Mildred felt the blood rise into her face. “What on earth are you doing?” she shrieked.  “That isn’t your puzzle to just go moving things around in! It will give her an unfair advantage!”

The young man withdrew his hand as if burnt. “Sorry! I was just trying to…” He jingled his keys.

“You don’t see me coming to your place moving your stuff around, do you? Show some manners for heaven’s sake!”

Shirley hovered around her guests as she herded them out. “Millie’s a little – you know…” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “But it just goes to show that we accommodate all levels of care here.” She switched off the light and closed the door behind her. 

Mildred was glad to have the quiet once again restored. That Shirley was trouble, she was. Barging in all the time. Using that patronizing tone. Later this afternoon, Mildred would tell Mr. West to fire her. Yes. Mildred wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.

She toddled to the butterfly puzzle and stared at it. Greta. Always talking as she worked — babbling on and on about her great-grandchildren as if she didn’t know that puzzles were a silent meditation — that a person needed to appreciate the shape, texture and pattern of each and every segment.  Mildred picked up a piece — the tip of a swordtail’s wing, perhaps. Straight on one side, an edge. It was an important piece, a critical piece. She popped it into her mouth.

The glue was slightly sweet and she had no trouble swallowing. Already, she could picture Greta under the table on her hands and knees, searching.

After a career spent writing facts (journalism, technical writing, content management), Linda Saldaña is now concentrating on fiction, where she can change the endings.

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