“Puzzle Pieces” — a short story

“Don’t tell me we went the wrong way.” Logan growled like an angry tiger and kicked the air in front of him, which caused him to trip over a hidden root and fall on his face. He started to yell, but nothing came out. Instead, he looked up and stared at the trees.

Writing is often a solitary task. We sit in our nook – alone – and write until we are driven insane by our characters. Or until we’re hungry… whichever comes first.

That being said, writing doesn’t have to be lonely. There are many writing groups on Facebook and Twitter filled with people who will welcome you with open arms – err… open keyboards?

Sometimes we writers join forces and inspire each other! One such writer (Darren) on Twitter offered up an idea…

And that idea was shortly challenged by another writer (Christine) in our circle.

Game on!

The three of us decided to challenge each other to a short story contest that related to the picture from the tweet. We created three different stories to post on our contest site (created for us by a third party and organized by Darren), and then we put them to a vote.

Even though I was up against excellent writers, I managed to win first place in this challenge (thank you if you voted!!), and I’d love to share my story with you here. I can’t wait until our next contest!

PUZZLE PIECES


“Are you sure we have to go in there?” Logan pointed at the dense tree line where the dirt road ended.

“Don’t tell me you’re chickening out already.” Zack hid his brand new bike (a blue mountain bike he got for his twelfth birthday last week) in the bushes just past the trees and marked the spot with a couple of large rocks. “Dee messaged us. Remember?”

“Yeah. But what if—”

“Just hide your bike already so we can go.” He wiped the smudge from his glasses and stepped of the road. “Are you coming or not?”

Logan raked his hand through his dirty blond hair and sighed. “If I don’t make it home on time, then—”

“We’ll never make it anywhere if you keep stalling.” Zack tightened his backpack, which he had filled with everything he thought they might need: a flashlight, spare batteries, bug spray, and crunchy sourdough pretzels. “Let’s go,” he said, pulling his phone out of the side pocket to track their distance and use the compass. “Dee said to get there as fast as possible. Come on!”

“I’m coming.” Logan rearranged the bushes so their bikes were hidden. “I can’t believe you’re using a compass.” He pointed back. “You could just use the sun.”

Zack, eager to be like the adventurers he’d seen in movies, smiled down at the screen and started walking west. “How are we supposed to do that without a compass when the tress are blocking the sun?”
“I can’t believe we’re friends.” He shook his head. “Let’s just go.”

“Don’t worry. She said it wasn’t too far.”

“Yeah right,” he grumbled. “And there’s no way we’re making it home on time. Bet.”

“Quit complaining.” Zack took out the bag of pretzels. “Want one?”

“Seriously?” He reached into the bag and pulled out a broken half. “We should save some.”

“Why?” he said with a mouth full. “I’m hungry.”

For the next fifteen minutes, they walked through the woods emptying the brand new bag of pretzels as they jumped over exposed roots, swatted at mosquitoes buzzing in their ears, and followed the compass arrow.

“I thought you said we were close?” Logan pulled the bug spray out and layered it on again.

“We—” he paused when his phone dinged. “Dee’s asking if we’re close. She said she found something else that we have to see.”

Logan leaned over to read the message. “What’d she find?”

“How am I supposed to know?” He typed out a response.

“Well, ask her then.”

“I just did.” He swiped back to their distance. “I told her I think we’re almost there, too.”

“What do you mean you think?”

He stopped and spun around. “Point eighty-two miles,” he said, rechecking Dee’s message. “We should be here.”

“Don’t tell me we went the wrong way.” Logan growled like an angry tiger and kicked the air in front of him, which caused him to trip over a hidden root and fall on his face. He started to yell, but nothing came out. Instead, he looked up and stared at the trees.

“You okay?” When Zack walked over to help him up, the trees disappeared and mountains formed. “What in the—” He dropped his phone and the flashlight, which no longer illuminated due to the bright light that beckoned to the sky. The light radiated from a spiraling tower sitting atop a mini-castle.

Logan pulled Zack down. “You’re… you’re seeing this? Right?”

“I think so.” He searched every direction. “What happened to the trees?”

“Ask Dee,” he whispered.

Zack backed away to find his phone in a fluff of grass that had been leaves and twigs only moments ago and sent a quick text to Dee.

“Ask her what’s going on. Ask her if she’s here. Ask her if—”

“I am, I am. Give me a sec.” Zack tapped away as quick as he could in between peeks back at the fortress in front of him. He didn’t realize that he was gradually stepping back until the trees reappeared and the darkness teased his eyes again.

He stopped. Moved closer. The light and mountains returned. He moved back: darkness and trees. His mind swung like a pendulum with his legs as he tried to analyze their situation.
Logan stood up, blocking Zack from continuing his back-and-forth motion. “Has this really been here the whole time?”
“What?” Zack shook out of his trance. “I—” He jumped when his phone dinged again. “It’s Dee.”
Logan pulled a leaf out of his hair and peered over Zack’s shoulder. “What’d she say?”

“She says ‘HELP!’ but I don’t know—”

A piercing scream escaped from the tower and echoed off the mountains.

“Dee!” They both took off running only to be stopped by a raging river when they got closer.

“Where’d that—” Zack began.

“There’s a bridge,” Logan said, breathless, pointing to their right.

The bridge – a wobbly, wooden thing missing side rails on one side and a few slats in between – creaked with laughter when they stepped on.

“Maybe one at a time?”

“Okay. Wait. What?” Logan asked. “You mean since I’m already on it first?”

“Well, yeah. You—”

Another painful scream ricocheted out of the tower.

“Forget it.” Zack pushed Logan forward. “Hold on tight, and let’s go!”

His brevity lasted all of five seconds before he was hanging from the railing as his shoes cozied up to the river only inches below.

“Maybe a little slower,” Logan suggested, pulling him up.

“Yeah.” He gulped, trying to find his heart that must have pounded out of his chest and dived into the river. “Slower sounds good.”

After avoiding the rest of the missing slats, they crossed a small patch of grass and entered a empty, covered courtyard.

Nothing moved. Nothing echoed. The silence even drowned out the river.

“What now?” Logan whispered.

“I don’t know. Why are you whispering?”

“You’re whispering, too.” He pointed toward two large triangular doors in front of them. “Those doors?”

Zack let out a deep breath. “Looks like doors to me,” he answered, searching for an alternative.

The door on the left was already ajar, so they crept through it. “Blasted burnt burritos,” Logan cursed after he bumped the thick metal with his elbow.

“You okay?”

“I hit my funny bone,” he answered, “but it’s not funny.”

“Don’t worry,” Zack responded with a straight face. “I’ll laugh later.” He squinted into the dimly lit foyer. “Maybe.”

“Look,” Logan motioned. “Stairs.”

“Okay.” He hesitated. “Let’s go.”

Even though the spiraling staircase was uncarpeted and made of stone, silence radiated from it.

“Where’s the flashlight?” Logan asked.

“Dropped it back there. But I’ve got my phone.”

They followed the staircase as far up as they could, periodically peeking out tiny windows on the way up.

“Turn off the light,” Logan whispered. “It’s brighter up here.”

“Must mean we’re close.” Zack whispered back. “Now what?”

“What? Why’re you asking me?”

“You keep finding stuff. This place, the bridge, the door, the stairs. So what’s next?”

“If you could actually see out of those glasses, then you’d find stuff first,” Logan countered.

“Hey. It’s not my fault it’s been so dark in here.” He slugged Logan in the arm. “Where do you think that leads?”

A long, empty corridor stared at them when they reached the top of the stairs. As they inched their way down it, a melodious older male voice started talking.

“Two… more… pieces… and…” the voice paused. “Perfect!” he shouted, but no echo followed.

“Maybe we should go.” Logan turned for the stairs.

Zack pulled him back. “We can’t. Dee’s here. Remember?”

“You know,” he answered, “we don’t really know her. She did just move here after all. Maybe she lives here.” He turned to go again.

“Seriously?” Zack grabbed his arm. “Just because she’s new around here doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help her. You saw the message.” He swiped his phone back through his messages. “Where is it?”

“What?”

“It’s not here. Dee’s not even in my contacts anymore.” He kept swiping and clicking, but his phone beeped at him, then died.

“You didn’t charge it before we left?” Logan ran both hands through his hair, pulling it at the ends. “We should go.”

“Go where?” asked a tall, shadowed man who soundlessly appeared in front of them.

“Ah!” Logan jumped back. “We’re sorry… we didn’t mean to… we were looking for… we tried to… but we didn’t know… we—”

The man laughed. “Oh! I know this place is irresistible. I tried to hide it, but there’s only so much I can do in this tiny lab of mine.” He motioned toward the open door.

Logan regained his voice. “Lab?” he squeaked.

“Yes,” he answered, smiling, his ankle-length lab coat in full view. “I’ve been working on a puzzle, and I think I’ve finally succeeded.”

“Puzzles? In a lab?” Logan sneered. “I mean…”

“Of course!” He laughed again, what would have been a bellowing laugh if sound would have echoed. “Every experiment anyone ever tries is a puzzle, and that is what I do in my lab. Solve them.”

“So… you’re working on an experiment?” Zack asked, not realizing that he was following the man through the door.

“I’ve been working on the same one for over ten decades, and I think I’ve finally come to my conclusion.” He closed the door and turned the key after both boys had entered.

On the other side of Zack, Logan counted on his fingers. “Wait,” he said. “Ten decades? There’s no way.”

“Oh but there is, Logan.” He walked over to the table with his ‘puzzle’ and drank a neon orange mixture from a vial labeled ‘Young Delilah.’

Logan spotted several others with neon colors and names: ‘Dr. Novak,’ ‘Young Anastasia,’ ‘Grown Doyle,’ and numerous other variations of young names, grown names, and professions. He backed toward the door. “How do you know my name?” he whispered, trying the doorknob behind him. Locked.

The man let out another laugh and turned around. “Puzzles…” he began.

Zack rushed to Logan, but they couldn’t get the door open. Over on the table near the lone window in the room, he noticed a phone, so he inched toward it.

Before he reached it, the man started to shrink. His hair turned red and grew longer. The long white lab coat flowed like a wedding train behind him.

Zack reached for the phone on the table, and dropped it like a hot coal when he saw the bright pink ‘D’ on the back. “Delilah,” he whispered.

The laugh was back, but it no longer belonged to a man; it belonged to a twelve-year-old girl. Both boys grew wide-eyed and couldn’t breathe when she talked again.

“Puzzles,” Dee repeated, “are always more challenging and satisfying to complete when they have more pieces.” She smiled and pushed a button on the table, which opened a swirling portal to in place of the window.

The spiraling orange in front of them beckoned like the light atop the tower. “Let us go,” Logan begged, tears filling his eyes as Dee moved closer to Zack.

“Where’s the challenge in that?” she asked before pushing Zack in. “Besides, it’s time for me to move again and find more pieces.”

“Pieces?” Logan tried the doorknob again. Still locked.

“To verify my conclusion, of course.” She pulled him toward the portal. “I can’t release my findings without verification, now, can I?”

“But I don’t think—” But he was pushed into the portal before he could finish.

Dee smiled. She walked back over to the table, pushed the button to turn off the machine, and flipped through her notes. “Who’s next,” she asked her reflection. “I haven’t been her in twenty years, so why not?”

After another round of the awful liquid (this time labeled ‘Grown Delilah’), she watched her reflection as her childish face and figure transformed. “I think I can make this work again.” She smiled. “Time to pick up a few more pieces for my puzzle.”


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