Missing Piece

The puzzle was done and there was one piece missing. It was a thousand-piece puzzle shattered from a painting of a castle at sunset. The castle was surrounded by a moat, and it had flags and turrets and battlements and all the other parts of a castle that Everett didn’t know the names of, but it didn’t have a gate. That was the piece that was missing. 

He supposed the painting was meant to be romantic or fantastical, since castles generally were, but the water in the moat looked clouded and diseased, and the orange sky cast a ruddy glow on the stone walls. It could have been filled with vampires as much as with princes. 

“I think we should call the company and complain,” said Everett, scrutinizing the box for a phone number.

“We could have just lost the piece,” said Amy, putting her hair up in a ponytail for the fourth time that evening. “We probably just lost it.”

“It’s a brand new puzzle. We opened the bag yesterday. And it’s an obvious piece, I mean come on, the gate? How could it be missing the gate?”

“I bet we’ll find it in the morning when it’s light out.”

“We looked! We looked under the table and between the couch cushions. I even checked under my goddamn dinner plate.” They had eaten dinner over the puzzle two nights in a row. In fact they had barely left its side since Amy had brought over the shrink-wrapped box the previous morning. They had never meant for it to get this serious, but once the pieces were on the table, they were committed. 

“Why are you so angry?” She leaned back into her chair and crossed her arms, digging her fingers into her fuzzy green sweater. “It’s just a puzzle, Everett. It’s just a tiny piece of cardboard.” 

But doesn’t it just make you crazy? Isn’t it just a perfect analogy for how things never work out? Someone painted this stupid picture, and someone decided it would make a good puzzle, and someone went to all the trouble of making it a product they could sell to some poor schmucks, and then they make it all a waste of time just because of some tiny door.”

“Everett, look. We did all the rest. We did a great job.”

“But none of it matters. None of our work matters because we’re missing the piece that will make us complete.”

She uncrossed her legs.

“Us?”

“I mean…”

“No you don’t.” He tore out a corner piece, a mucky watery piece with a crocodile head, and plugged it back in. “You think we’re incomplete? That it doesn’t matter?”

“I never said that,” he muttered.”

“Yes you did.” She leaned forward to try and pry his attention from the puzzle. “What are we missing?”

“I don’t know!” He slammed his hand down on puzzle and sent a ripple through the tenuously-connected bits. “But can’t you feel it, Amy?”

“No!” she said, suddenly frantic. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! But maybe if you would talk to me about it instead of…” She jutted her palm at the puzzle. “Maybe we could find it.”

He shook his head sullenly.

“It was never there. It was never there to begin with.”

A shadow fell over the castle. She was standing. 

“You know what you do?” It was very dark in the room but he could tell that her face was red. At some point during the conversation she had taken her hair down again. “You just stamp out happiness. Just step right on it.”

She was out the door before she had finished putting on her coat. It was so fast he didn’t have time to ask her to wait. Instead he sat on the couch with his elbows on the coffee table, stunned. His senses heightened by adrenaline and pain, every detail of the puzzle was sharp: the grout between every castle stone, every line between every puzzle piece. 

Castles weren’t romantic. They were built by people who thought they were better than everyone else, just to keep the rest of the world out. They would rather drown someone or shoot them than let anyone through the gate. He felt like his heart was a rubber band that had just been twanged, sending blood rushing in all directions much too fast. Putting his forehead in his hands, he stomped his foot on the ground. Something dug into his heel. 

“Oh, no.” He didn’t say it. Just mouthed the words. Without looking away from the puzzle, he slipped his hand down his leg and onto the bottom of his sock. When he brought his hand back up, he was holding a vaguely H-shaped object: a little bit of cardboard with a little painted door. 

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