The Puzzle Piece (Reflection Arc V) - Short Story

Short Story May 5, 2021

I coughed viciously on the warm oatmeal I was being fed, my facing growing beet red. Even that was hard to swallow these days.
It had barely been a month since my heart attack and the disease that the doctor’s claimed I had was already killing me, strangling the life from me bit by bit. People dreamt of a peaceful death, where they would just go to sleep one night and drift off into death. What a load of shit.
If my disease had taught me anything, it was that death wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t some soap opera, movie made dream of two people holding hands and dying in their sleep together because of the strength of their love.
Death hurt.
Every day, I woke up and another part of me was gone. Today, it was the ability to even swallow oatmeal, not that it was much of a loss. I did miss cookies, pizza, and all my other favourite foods, though. That was for damn sure.
There was no way of knowing what I would lose next. Tomorrow, maybe I wouldn’t be able to swallow at all. I already had to drink that sad excuse for water that felt and looked more like clear honey, dripping viscously, agonisingly slow down my throat. Already, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t dress myself, or bend down to pick up the pen I dropped. Hell, I couldn’t even wipe my own ass. I doubt there’s a thing on this earth more degrading to a man than needing his husband, his children, or some random hired caregiver to wipe his butt for him as if he were a helpless babe.
The ‘hallucinations’ hadn’t stopped either. If anything, they had gotten worse. The melting doctor hadn’t visited me again nor had I heard anything about Andy. When it came down to it, I was starting to truly wonder if this was simply all a figment of my imagination. Lord knew, I had seen enough science fiction and read enough fantasy books for my big brain to imagine scenes like the ones I saw.
Despite it all, I didn’t believe I was crazy, deep down. I didn’t believe I was sick. Sure, I knew I had heart disease and liver cirrhosis from my extensive drinking. But, I didn’t think I had dementia. These weren’t hallucinations I was having. I was experiencing something real.
Every night, when I went back to those other dimensions, I would explore them. I would walk deeper and deeper into them, which sounds impossible, since I thought I couldn’t walk anymore. I saw forests of alien tendrils, twisting and twirling into each other, forming odd formations like knots that I had taught my boys in Cub Scouts. I saw oceans bluer than any on earth and smelling like fond memories. Fresh cut grass, the burnt, salty smell of ballpark hot dogs and peanuts, the taste of liquorice and peppermint candies melting in my mouth.
The clearing in the woods was different each time, too. Once, there was a campfire, just like the one behind the house where we raised all three boys. Another time, a rusty swing set stood in the centre of the circle, one swing moving seemingly of its own accord.
These places I saw weren’t concrete, weren’t static. They were ever-changing, adapting, learning, teaching me something. I just needed to puzzle it out. And my husband had always said I was wasting my time with the hobby. Little did he know.
Four more months passed by and I defied my life expectancy victoriously. Nonetheless, my body continued to degrade heedless of my efforts to keep it in shape. We even hired a physical therapist to come in and do what she called ‘range of motion’ exercises that involved moving my limbs in circular motions, sometimes accompanied by a massage of my aching, atrophying muscles. Turns out if you lie in bed all day without movement, you start to lose your muscle. Who could have imagined?
On Christmas Day, Mark and his wife came over to spend the day with us. I loved seeing more of my family. Between one having a pregnant wife and the other as an endlessly busy business owner, neither son was able to visit often. It broke my heart a little that I wasn’t able to see them much, but I was proud of them for the men they had become and the lives they had built. My husband wheeled me right in front of the door, sitting in my tilt back wheelchair, to greet them as they came in.
The doorbell rang and I leaned forward to grasp the doorknob. my husband’s gentle hand whisked mine away.
“Oh, honey. It’s okay. I’ve got it,” he said, too busy to look at me as she turned the knob.
It was all smiles and laughter behind the door as Mark and his wife kissed and hugged my husband in greeting. Their expressions sobered somewhat, a little of the holiday joy fading from their faces, as their eyes found me in my chair.
“Dad,” Mark said, taking my limp hand in a tight, manly grip, just like I taught him. “Good to see you.”
“How’re you feeling, Dad?” his wife asked politely.
“I’m. Okay.” My voice came out halted and gruff, my vowels too wide and open. I could barely form basic words these days.
Mark’s eyes clouded over as he watched me struggle, grey storms raging behind them. The storms cleared suddenly and his face brightened with an overly happy smile. “Hey, how about we see what football games are on today?”
I nodded, not wanting to embarrass myself further by trying to speak again.
“That sounds wonderful, Mark! Me and your wife will go check on the ham,” my husband said and whisked Mark’s wife away to the kitchen.
Mark assumed his position behind my chair, talking to the back of my head, as he steered me into the living room. “So, Aaron and his husband are at the hospital now. He said her contractions are coming really close together. They send their love and of course, apologise for not being here.”
I grunted, then stubbornly deciding I needed to say more, said: “Good. Reason.”
Mark chuckled. “Yeah, Dad. As good of a reason as any. She should be delivering any time now. I told them to keep us updated.”
I flopped my hand towards the remote like a dead fish and it fell to the floor, the battery flying out in the impact.
“I got it,” Mark offered, snatching up the remote in a smooth bending motion. “Let’s see…”
He started flipping through channels until he found the lower numbers, where the sports always lived. I liked how old fashioned he was. Who needed a TV guide right on the screen anyway? Not like flipping through a few channels takes that much longer.
We settled on the only game on, the Cowboys and Eagles. Neither was a favourite team of mine, but it would do. Mark popped the cap of a beer and settled into my old recliner. We let the announcer do the talking for a while and I just focused on enjoying being near my boy again.
“Dinner’s up!” my husband called from the kitchen around halftime. A little bit of smoke drifted around the corner.
“You smoking in there?” Mark hollered back. “Thought you’d quit!”
“Very funny, sweetie,” he replied good naturedly. “Just adding a little bit of flavor to the ham is all. Now, bring your father in here so we can say grace and eat.”
Mark steered me into the dining room, parking me at the head of the table, where I always sat, and found a seat beside his wife.
All eyes fell on me for a moment. It was customary for me to say grace, especially before a holiday meal. I wasn’t sure I could, though. I looked at Mark with pleading, ashamed eyes.
He cleared his throat. “You know, I think I’d like to say grace this year. Let’s pray.”
Everyone bowed their head and held hands. My husband blessedly did most of the work for me, taking my hand and saving me from having to find hers with my near useless limbs.
“Dear God, Thank you for this food. We ask that you bless this family, especially Aaron and his husband as they wait for their little girl, and Dad to be comforted and healed. Please bless this food to our bodies and we to your service. In your name, we pray. Amen.”
“Amen. Thanks, Mark,” I rasped.
He nodded to me, a look of understanding passing between us, before he returned his attention to gathering the feast on his plate.
my husband took heaping helpings of the steaming ham, mashed potatoes, and green beans, then tossed them into the blender, grinding them until they were pureed. I swallowed back bile. The texture made me want to vomit along with the combination of tastes, but at least I got to eat Christmas dinner with my family. I could be comatose or dead like the doctors had predicted long before this point.
We all ate in silence for a while, a testament to my husband’s amazing culinary skills until a loud ringing came from Mark. He quickly pulled out his phone and stood up when he saw who it was.
“It’s Aaron,” he said, his voice excited. He covered the mouthpiece of the phone with a hand. “They had the baby!”
The rest of the table let out a whoop, screaming with joy. I felt a small smile split my cracked lips. It was about all my face could manage these days.
“Here, they want to video call,” Mark said, pushing a couple buttons and holding the phone up so everyone could see.
On the other end of the connection, Aaron and his wife sat on a hospital bed, a beautiful, newborn baby girl cradled against them.
“Isn’t she gorgeous?” Aaron asked. “Merry Christmas, Coté family! Meet Ellie.”
“Hi El...lie,” I said, my voice cracking.
All eyes turned to me, not one dry of tears. I sighed, feeling full of food and love, content and happy. I had made it. I had seen my granddaughter.
Then, my family disappeared.
There wasn’t a flash or a sound. They were just gone. The dining room remained, its furniture intact. The walls changed colour though, from the dark green back to the light blue they had been when we first bought the house. Craning my head slowly, I could see the old blue walls cut off somewhere behind me, returning to the newer green.
The long table stretched out in front of me still, though it had been cleared of dinner’s remnants. Instead, puzzle pieces were scattered across the table, the cardboard box and lid forgotten in the corner.  It appeared someone had partially completed it, the border pieces connected and finished. That was the easiest part to start with, after all.
I stared closer and my breath caught in my throat. I recognised the puzzle. It was the old thousand-piece puzzle of the original Star Wars poster, the one I had constructed so many times before with Andy. Instinctively, I picked up peace after piece and began filling in the picture. I lost track of time, so focused as I was on completing the puzzle. Nothing else mattered in that moment.
“What is he doing?” a familiar voice said, sounding millions of miles away.
“He’s just moving his hands. Maybe… putting something together? I can’t tell,” that was Mark, I realised distantly. “He doesn’t look like he’s in pain.”
My hands stopped and I glanced back at the table. The puzzle sat finished, complete, whole. My work here was done.
Some internal instinct made me look up as I stood, my legs impossibly strong beneath me. Andy was there, beaming down at me and the finished puzzle. His face was bright with that same smile he had smiled so many years ago when we had first worked for hours to finish the puzzle. My hand went out to his without thought. His skin was… warm and comforting.
I felt my dining room disappear behind me, the the change between blue and green walls ceasing to exist. I was weightless.
And then all went white.

And that's the end of this serial.

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Pranav Sharma

I’m a year 12 student at St Marks Catholic College. I specialise in science and mathematics, as well as full-stack software/hardware development. I am currently employed as a Network Administrator.

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