By Jamie Lackey
Betty sorted through her mother's belongings, separating and stacking a lifetime's worth of accumulated crap. Clothes and acrylic yarn and expired canned goods, books and an army of ceramic chickens and years and years of Christmas cards.
She heard her mother's irritated sigh every time something landed in the trash can.
She drove a carload to the local Goodwill, and the clerk scanned her offerings. "We only take complete jigsaw puzzles," he said. "Can you verify that these don't have pieces missing?"
Betty glanced at the stack. Her mother had really taken to puzzles, at the end. There had to be at least a hundred of them. "I'm sure they're fine."
"I'm sorry, miss, but that's not good enough."
"They were my mother's puzzles. I don't even know if she finished all of them."
He picked up the top box. "Take this one home, complete it, take a picture, and bring it back. If it has all its pieces, we'll take them all. If not, you take them back home or they go in the trash."
Betty clutched the box to her chest. She imagined the look on her mother's face if she'd seen her puzzles in the trash. "Fine."
She sat at her mother's dining room table and spread the puzzle pieces out in front of her. The box showed a spring landscape, complete with a pond and songbirds. Betty rubbed her forehead. "At least it's not Thomas Kinkaid."
She put on one of her mother's Brahms records and opened a bottle of wine that she'd given as a Mother's Day present. She started with the top edge, piece upon piece of bright blue sky. The feel of cardboard pieces clicking together soothed her aching heart.
The wine helped, too.
She finished the puzzle, but there was a piece missing. "I can't believe this," she muttered. She searched under the table and in the box. She glanced at the oddly-shaped gap in the middle of the scene. She ran her fingers over its edges.
The missing piece had to be somewhere in this house.
She left her glass, took the bottle, and started searching. She scoured the rooms that she's already been through, then the basement, then finally she pulled the ladder down and scrambled up to the attic.
The bare bulb flickered overhead, casting long shadows across the plywood floor, and she sneezed at the smell of dust and forgotten memories. The ceiling was too low to stand, so she crawled along, still clutching the now-empty bottle, feeling for cardboard with her empty hand.
"Come on, Mom," she whispered. "I know you didn't throw it away. You never threw anything away."
Her fingers touched a flat plane of cardboard, and she pulled it into the light.
Pieces from a hundred different puzzles fit together like they were made to. Their edges formed perfect seams, and the bits of sky and grass and feathered wing and castle wall came together to paint her mother's face. Not as she was at the end, but the way she'd been when Betty was growing up. Strong and beautiful and smiling, with a strong jaw and piercing eyes.
The familiar eyes blinked.
"There you are," the puzzle said. "I was starting to worry that you'd never make it to the attic."
"I've always hated it up here," Betty whispered.
"I know, dear."
"This can't be real."
"I wanted to let you know that I love you, Betty. That I appreciate all the things you did for me, that even when I didn't recognize you, I still knew that I loved you."
Tears slid down Betty's face and plopped on the bright surface.
"There, there, sweetie. I wish I could hug you."
The resentment of the past months, along with the stress and the heartbreak and the anger, all eased their grip. She looked into her mother's clear eyes. "I love you, too."
"It's okay to let go," her mother said. "You can throw out anything that you don't want to keep, and I really won't mind."
Betty sniffled and wiped her eyes. "Thanks."
She felt warm fingers on her cheek, then the puzzle was nothing but a confusing mishmash of colors.
She took the puzzle apart, piece by piece. Then she put the last piece from the spring puzzle in its place and took a picture. "Goodbye, Mom." She looked around the empty room, then slid the pieces into the box and closed the lid. "Goodbye."
About the Author
Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death... She's a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, OneRevolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.
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