Alexander Hulett 1 Puzzle Masters A Short Story by Alexander C

Puzzle Masters A Short Story by Alexander C. Hulett In the back corner of a small town, in the back of a puzzle shop, sat an unfinished puzzle. And in the front of that shop sat a young shop keep. For years he had welcomed people into his shop; selling them board games, decks of cards, and puzzles galore! But above all he was the keeper of the puzzle; and this was no ordinary puzzle. The puzzle had a long and mysterious history and had been passed down from his father, who had spent a lifetime trying to put all the pieces together. His father had come across the puzzle in a small puzzle shop amidst the busy streets of NYC. As he wandered down the rows of puzzles his eye was immediately drawn to a framed puzzle hanging on the wall. Before that moment, nothing in his life could compare to the beauty that this puzzle pictured. He had to have it. Going to the counter he inquired about the puzzle on the wall and the story that followed shocked him. The puzzle was 1 in a set of 10 that had taken years to complete. In fact, to this day, some of the 10 remained unsolved. It was said that once completed the puzzler who finished one was blessed with good fortune. This instantly attracted his father, for life had been unkind to him as of late and he was desperate for a change. Luckily for him, the small puzzle shop was the owner of 2 out of the 10 and for a meager price the other was his. So blinded by the opportunity to change his luck, he purchased it on the spot! Sadly, like so many before him, the solution to the puzzle would elude him until he finally had enough and passed it down to his son. Years would pass and the Alexander Hulett 1 shop keep found himself turning down real opportunities in life just for the good fortune that the puzzle promised. He would spend many of his days in that back room working towards a finish that always seemed just out of his reach. Having no success in any of his attempts to complete it he had lost confidence in his abilities and decided to give the people of his small community the opportunity to receive the good fortune for themselves. People would come from miles away to have a go at the puzzle. Some people would spend hours on the puzzle, others would stay for days, but still no one could bring life to the picture hidden behind the oddly shaped pieces of cardboard. After years of disappointment, all that had been formed was the border and some stray pieces bonded together with no semblance of a picture at all. With no solution in sight, people began slowly giving up. Saying that the unfinished puzzle was doomed to forever have its pieces scattered all over a table in the back room of the game shop. But still the shop keep kept hope, dreaming that one day someone would come that believed the impossible could become possible. Without the thrill of the puzzle, the shop keep spent most of his days alone trying to financially stay afloat amidst the growing electronic age. This routine continued until one day a young woman from out of town walked into the shop and asked if she could try her hand at the puzzle. She had heard about its mystery from a friend who had passed through town during his travels across the country and she had to see it. Thrilled to see that someone was showing interest in the puzzle again, he led her to the back room where the puzzle pieces were laid out across a wooden table surrounded by several cobweb-­‐ridden stools. He brushed off the stools closest to them, pulled the sheet from atop the puzzle pieces and left the woman to her Alexander Hulett 2 thoughts. She looked down at the dust-­‐covered puzzle and gently blew the dust from the pieces. Scanning the tabletop, a border was clear, but other than that utter chaos laid before her. She began by organizing the pieces the way she always did when beginning a puzzle, face up in different groupings based on color. Organized and ready to get to work she began frantically connected pieces together in hopes that she could be the one to crack the code. As the hours passed the shop keep occasionally popped his head into the back room to see how the puzzle was advancing. He also didn’t mind having the company for his shop had been quite lonely ever since the thrill of the puzzle had been extinguished. As he quietly peered over her shoulder he could see sections of the puzzle beginning to take shape. She seemed to be breezing along, creating a bond between puzzler and puzzle that the shop keep had never seen before. Nothing seemed to break her concentration as she worked towards its completion. Eventually darkness would fall upon the windows of the shop and he was forced to close for the night. Hoping for her return in the morning, the shop keep bid her good evening and they both went their separate ways home. When he arrived at his shop the next morning he was pleasantly surprised to see the young woman waiting patiently for him by the front door. She had been thinking about the puzzle all night and couldn’t wait to get back to work. The shop keep was thrilled! Finally someone who was willing to put the work in to solve his mystery. Her visits would continue as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months. Wanting to avoid the monotony of dusting shelf after shelf of board games, the shop keep would often join her in the back as the two tried to Alexander Hulett 3 reach the solution that eluded all puzzlers before them. Past attempts had allowed the shop keep to become quite familiar with the pieces and she welcomed any and all help she could get. As their work continued on the puzzle a friendship began to blossom as they spent hours together daily. However the woman would soon scarcely been seen in the shop. She had come to love the small town she now called home and spent the majority of her days exploring what secrets were hidden among its streets. She would continue to fill her days with other activities as the puzzle was pushed further and further to the back of her mind. Her decline in interest would come to its climax when one day she received an urgent phone call and without any goodbye or explanation she vanished and he never saw her again. Without any hesitation he had let his guard down and fate had taught him a cruel lesson. He had fallen victim to hope. Hope for a finished product that he once thought was unreachable. She had revived his faith in the good fortune the puzzle promised only to destroy that faith without a second glance. For years he had been on the same quest only to end up face to face with disappointment each time a resolution seemed imminent. Enough was enough. He locked up his shop, threw the dusty sheet over his unfinished puzzle and went home to rest his weary heart. On his walk home the sky shared his grief and a light drizzle began to fall upon his head. He had truly thought she could be the answer to his troubles. The passion with which she attacked the puzzle had been intoxicating. Through that passion, the shop keep had found the drive he once had pushing him forward again with a brand new vigor. Yet here he was broken and alone, his mind constantly returning to thoughts of the young woman and the continued pain of Alexander Hulett 4 failure. Many nights the shop keep would lay awake tormented by the image of the completed puzzle. Vibrant strokes of color coming together to form an image the likes of which he had never seen. Haunted by these visions, he slowly fell deeper and deeper into his grief. The smallest things would bring him back to the hours they had spent working together towards a common solution. For weeks it consumed his daily life until the day he received an unexpected phone call from a business neighboring his shop. They told him that a woman had been standing outside his deserted shop the past few days. Thinking she was just some passer-­‐by they had paid her no mind, until today when she came into their business asking about his shop and the puzzle he kept hidden within its walls. Could she have returned? The next morning he cleaned himself up, headed out his front door and journeyed back to the shop he had neglected for the last several weeks. Disappointment instantly set in when he found no woman standing at his door like he had been told. He cursed the phone call he had received but not wanting to waste the day walking back and forth he decided to check what weeks of neglect had done to his once beloved shop. One step through the door and he was confronted with an absolute disaster. Shelves were covered in dust and the floor required immediate TLC. Rolling up his sleeves he devised a battle plan to conquer the mess but a knock on the door stopped him in his tracks. She had come back! Yet as he turned to face the front door he was surprised to see a different woman standing there looking back at him through the glass windows. After a brief discussion he learned that this woman had indeed been stopping by his shop every day hoping that he would return. The story of the puzzle had grabbed her immediate attention and the Alexander Hulett 5 promise of a brighter future exhilarated her. She guaranteed the shop keep that she would be his knight in shining armor for dreams are too important to give up on. Proceeding with caution, he let the girl in, led her to the back room and pulled off the sheet that lay across his enigma. She stood there examining the puzzle as the shop keep explained its long mysterious history. As he hurried through the story he noticed a slight confusion slowly crossing over the woman’s face. He knew the story might seem a tad farfetched but he felt it didn’t warrant the confusion that currently graced her face. It had to be something else. Then, as if reading his mind, the truth came out. She was under the impression that she would be starting the puzzle from scratch and did not want to work off of someone else’s leavings. She was also skeptical about the rules of the puzzle and wanted to make sure that all the good fortune given would be her’s and her’s alone. She was truly a lone wolf and had always preferred to work alone. Besides, the work that had already been done to the puzzle was mediocre at best. Beckoning him closer, she revealed all the specific pieces that had been forcible jammed together. Looking more carefully he began to notice many discrepancies that he hadn’t seen before. Here and there he found several pieces that didn’t truly belong and the once organized chaos of pieces slowly evolved into pure chaos. Weeks ago he had seen a beautiful scene taking shape but today he saw nothing more then a child’s finger painting. Seeing this as a wonderful opportunity to delete painful memories of his most recent failure, he assured her that she was in control now and could do whatever she pleased with the puzzle. Pleased with his response, and her new found command over the puzzle, she quickly sat down and cleaned the mess that lay across the dust covered table. He Alexander Hulett 6 watched as she frantically disconnected all the pieces and moved others around the table into neat little piles. Everything she did seemed to go against all tactics previous puzzlers had used. Instead of organizing them by color she did it by shape of the pieces. Not only that but she turned all the pieces upside down so no image was seen at all! She had nothing to guide her but the shapes and sizes of the pieces. Having never seen these tactics before the shop keep felt a flicker of hope deep within himself begin to grow. However, with the sting of disappointment still fresh in his heart, the shop keep made a point to avoid getting emotional involved with this puzzler and left her to her work. Stepping into the front room he realized just how easy that would be. The intrigue of a new puzzler had enabled him to forget all about the mess that he once called a shop. But now it stared him straight in the face. The shop keep would spend most of his days cleaning the front of the store while the young woman diligently worked on the puzzle in the back room. Occasionally he would check on her progress, but he made sure to fight the call of the puzzle and declined to offer her his wisdom. The woman didn’t seem to mind for she was truly a one woman wrecking ball and, as she had mentioned, preferred to work alone. Her work on the puzzle quickly surpassed anything the 1st woman had jammed together. In fact, the puzzle seemed to be taking on a completely different image than before, as if puzzler determined what the puzzle projected. But eventually, like all before her, she would grow tired of the puzzle and it’s difficulties. The hours she would once spend in the shop turned to the occasional visit where nothing was accomplished and she would quickly depart. The shop keep noticed this decline in her interest and, contrary to what he promised, found himself getting Alexander Hulett 7 emotionally involved all over again. The call of the puzzle had dragged him back in and he was hopeless to stop it. He tried everything he could think of to reinstate some passion back into her but everything he did seemed to have an adverse effect and simply caused her to lose interest at an increased rate. After weeks of pleading with her to stay she had finally had enough. She came in one day, said her goodbyes, and then walked out the door never to return again. With her exit the shop keep felt an unwelcome, but all too familiar feeling began to take hold of him. He had seen two very different puzzles begin to take shape but was still no closer to the solution. Experience had warned him of his fate but he continued to run around in the same circles he had been for several years. His need to complete the puzzle had once again led him to a dark and unfriendly place where he had vowed never to return. Why could he not break this viscous cycle? Having been scorned twice now the shop keep, like his father before him, completely gave up on his search for someone to accomplish the impossible. The days passed as he sat in his empty shop drowning in a sea of self-­‐pity. He slowly began to realize that for too long he had put his dreams on hold passing up several opportunities to advance in life just so he could stay in his little shop and protect a lost mystery. All of his faith had been in the puzzle when in reality he just needed to believe in himself. His love of board games and his blind devotion to the puzzle had kept him firmly planted in the small shop at the back of the small town; while the electronic bombardment of the modern world slowly killed all that he loved. Family game nights were a thing of the past and before long he would have to admit to himself that his future was not here in this puzzle shop. He needed a drastic change Alexander Hulett 8 and he needed it soon. Unfortunately he had responsibilities to the shop that had to be met before any of his dreams could come true. Therefore he vowed to spend the next few weeks bringing the store back to its former glory, finding someone to pass it on to, and then head towards his fresh start! With a new mindset and path set before him, he locked the puzzle up in the back room and set his eyes on the horizon. In the following weeks determination would slowly replace his blind devotion to the puzzle. But he was now faced with a new problem. How could he bring customers into a puzzle shop when the newest technological gadget ran the world and the art of puzzling was slowly dying away? He decided that he would host a community game night to try to instill some love for puzzles back into the people of his small town. He would go around town with flyers promoting his game night and when the inaugural event came along he was pleasantly surprised at how many people showed up. As he hosted more of these game nights, memories of days as children playing games by the fire with the whole family came flooding back to the members of the community. Lost days when families would spend their evenings together instead of alone in their separate rooms attached to several electronic devices. Months would pass and his shop would do a complete 180! Business was heading in the right direction and he could finally think about his big move. All he needed now was his replacement. For years he had been the sole proprietor of the shop so choices for a replacement were few, if not non-­‐existent. He had a few employees help him over the years but they had all just passed through on their own journeys through life. He knew that the only way for his beloved games to continue to survive in the modern Alexander Hulett 9 world was to find someone who shared the same passion and love as him. After some thought he realized the best course of action would be to post job openings for his shop. Not only would it lighten the load from his shoulders but maybe, just maybe, he would find his perfect replacement. After a few weeks of job interviews, the shop keep found 4 young and willing employees to work in the shop and his time could now be spent elsewhere preparing for his move. Time would tell whether any of the 4 would turn out to be his saving grace. Excited about the idea of a new life he immediately starting packing and organizing his affairs so everything was set up for success when he left. As he did, thoughts of his unfinished puzzle would occasionally creep into his mind. Could he leave without finishing it? Would he bring it along with him and hope that in a new place with new people he could finally solve it? Dangerous thoughts such as these ran rampant through his mind until a sudden ring of his doorbell snapped him out of his thoughts and he went to welcome his unexpected guest. Standing there was an unfamiliar, attractive young woman. She was new in town and saw herself as somewhat of a puzzle master. She had heard from members of the community that he had all the best and hardest puzzles in his possession and, being somewhat of a puzzle enthusiast, wanted to test her skills with a new challenge. She had completed all puzzles she had come across during her travels and was looking for something that could spark, and keep, her interest. Appreciating her passion for puzzles, the shop keep stopped what he was doing, welcomed her into his home and went to his study to get a box he had just packed full of his toughest puzzles. Alexander Hulett 10 They spent the next hour browsing through all of the puzzles he had to offer her. Never before had she seen such beautiful and colorful puzzles, it was thrilling! Other than himself, the shop keep had never seen anyone who had such an intense passion for puzzles so they made an arrangement for her to do 1 puzzle at a time for the remainder of his time in town. When she solved one she would bring it back to him and he would give her another one to satisfy her continual hunger for a challenge. Unknown to him, the idea of a new puzzler had sprouted a tiny seedling in his mind that would eventually lead him once again into despair. After another hour of ogling the puzzles she departed with puzzle in hand and excitement in her heart. Thinking it would take days for her to complete his first puzzle he was surprised when his doorbell rang the next day and there she stood, ready for her next puzzle. This exchange program would continue as a friendship began to develop between the two, leading the shop keep to forget all about his journey west. She was like no woman he had ever met before; kind, beautiful, and a complete puzzle nerd! As they spent more time together he quickly came to learn that she too had a past full of disappointments. Hope, having played many a cruel trick on the young woman, had led her on a soul-­‐searching journey across the country for she too had many questions that needed answers. The shop keep could not help but feel for the woman, as their separate paths through life seemed eerily familiar. This common admiration between the two would soon grow into much more than your average friendship. Nothing could stump her; she seemed to truly be a puzzle master. His stack of puzzles would get smaller and smaller as she devoured any and all puzzles that he Alexander Hulett 11 put before her. Puzzles that had taken him weeks she finished within days and then there she’d be, at his door, asking for another more difficult puzzle. They continued to play this puzzle tango for weeks until one morning when she stopped by with her latest conquest and he realized that they had exhausted his entire stock of puzzles. Although disappointed, she decided to stay and he went off to the kitchen to prepare lunch for the two of them. And that’s when it hit him. The puzzle in the back room of his shop. He quickly threw together some food and eagerly went to tell her about his epiphany. For weeks the puzzle hadn’t crossed his mind but as soon as he mentioned it to the woman, a flood of emotions came rushing over him. He had done his best to keep the past in the past, but here he was face to face with an all too familiar foe. As they finished their meal the young woman could talk of nothing but the puzzle and, after some coaxing, got the shop keep to show her what he had left unsolved! She was thrilled at the possibility of the ultimate challenge and was chomping at the bit to get started. As they entered the shop, everything seemed to be running quite smoothly without him. After a brief discussion with his employees they made their way to the back room. Opening the door they entered the dark room, took the dusty sheet off the puzzle, blew the dust from 2 stools nearby, and sat down to further discuss the puzzle. As soon as they finished chatting she quickly dove right into the puzzle. In her hands pieces seemed to gravitate towards their mate creating entire sections of the puzzle in the blink of an eye. Hours would go by and he was blown away by how much she had already completed. Indescribable images were beginning to form and the shop keep once again became enthralled Alexander Hulett 12 with the mystery of the puzzle. As he did a sense of dread began to form deep in his stomach for she had come to mean a great deal to him and he did not want to lose her to the false promises of a mysterious puzzle. He assured himself that this time would be different; this time he would succeed. He knew that she too had a past shrouded in disappointment, so he vowed to try everything in his power to help heal her wounds. He showered her with praise, making sure she knew how grateful he was that she stumbled upon his front door. As her work on the puzzle picked up, she would slowly begin to creep out of the hole of despair she had deep within herself. She had created a busy life in the small town and would only get to the shop for a few hours in the evenings. Therefore he found himself spending most of his evenings in the shop with her as they continued their march towards a finished product. They would spend hours laughing and working on the puzzle together, as a team. As their relationship grew, they both looked forward to their daily get togethers, until one day when it all changed. For weeks she had been consistently arriving every night around 9, working for a few hours and then heading home for the night. One evening as the shop keep was training a new employee he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, the young woman beckoning him to the back room. He quickly excused himself and went to see what she had required of him. To his dismay, she was not her normal happy go lucky self. She seemed somber and quiet as the shop keep cautiously entered the back room. This was a whole new side to the woman he had never seen before; what could have caused this complete 180. Then, as if a ton of bricks was smacking him in Alexander Hulett 13 the face, she said that she couldn’t work on the puzzle anymore and had to leave. Why was she giving up? His confusion must have been quite apparent for she then went on with her explanation. Like a poet suffering from writer’s block, she had come to a wall. The pieces were no longer calling out to there opposite and she was having difficulty finishing what remained of the puzzle. She was stuck and saw no light at the end of the tunnel, leading her into a downward spiral of self-­‐doubt. She talked of as if she didn’t deserve the gifts that the puzzle promised. Her past had led her to this moment, but it was also the very thing holding her back. Years of not being good enough had taken its toll and was now preventing her from the very thing she craved most, happiness. She had to leave. She had to continue her journey, alone. The shop keep once again found his heart perched on his shoulder for the world to see. She had become so much more than a solution to his puzzle. He saw in this woman a life that he had always wanted and his greed for that pushed him to beg her to stay. But the more he pleaded the more her frustrations led her out the door. They had become so close but in that back room a wall had been erected, separating them forever. He had given too much too fast and felt a numbness slowly begin to take over his body and with one final “let me go!” she walked out the door without even saying goodbye. The shop keep stood there alone, stunned, and heartbroken. The puzzle, his future, the healing of his past, she could have solved them all; for she was his puzzle master. She had come when he wasn’t looking, she had solved every puzzle he put in front of her and the bond they had formed had Alexander Hulett 14 seemed unbreakable. She had become everything to him and now she was gone. She had disappeared like last night’s dream and had taken all his hope with her. 3 times now hope had bested him. Raising him up only to shoot him down in the blink of an eye. Why had he let the hope of resolution control his emotions, his thoughts, his very life? He quickly headed towards the exit as a hurricane of emotions continued to recklessly destroy his tiny island of hope. He knew he couldn’t survive another let down; constantly letting people in so they could dessert him at the very moment he needed them most. Like an addict relapsing from his sobriety he had done it again, foolishly letting the hope of a finished product keep him from his dreams. What had happened to his plans of a better future, far away from the stress and torment of an unfinished puzzle? He had to once and for all be done with the puzzle and all of its false promises. He needed something different then the litany of woe he had come so accustomed to. Something far away from the puzzle whose completion eluded him like a cleaver mouse does a fat cat. Away from the memory of a woman who would forever remain out of his reach. He spent the next few weeks preparing his things, repacking boxes and settling all his financial affairs. In his search for new employees he had luckily found someone worthy enough to pass his shop onto. The shop keep’s faith in one of the boys had been justified as he saw the boy’s love of games grow and grow as he spent more time in the shop. He had developed into a real leader with all the skills necessary to take over a thriving business. The shop keep knew that under this boy’s watch his games would continue to be loved and cared for as they had been for many years. Alexander Hulett 15 The weeks went by and soon the day of his move arrived. He packed the last few things in his truck and took one last drive around town saying goodbye to the life he once knew. Contrary to what he promised, he decided to take one last look at the shop he had called home for so long. Going past the new management sign he wandered down the rows of shelves that once held such joy and happiness for him. Reminiscing on memories of the past, he eventually came to the back room. It was as if some force was drawing him closer, beckoning him to take one last look at the puzzle that held the pain and regret of his past. Pushing open the door he entered the dark room, pulled a stool from the corner and sat down next to the dusty sheet that hid his unsolved mystery. He had spent hours in this room but it now felt like such an unfamiliar place. Pulling off the sheet, the pieces shrieked back at him as if mocking his inability to solve their mystery. It was at that moment that all the pent up rage of his past failures came screaming out as he threw the tabletop covered in puzzle pieces across the room. Panting with exhaustion, he stood there as the pieces scattered all over the floor. Anger quickly gave way to grief as he collapsed into a pile of tears; emotions he had kept locked away for so long finally pouring out of his weary heart. Sitting on the floor, he began to catch his breath from the flurry of emotions that had just come roaring out of him. Forcing himself up, he dried away his tears and slowly began gathering the pieces from the floor. Piece by piece he picked up the puzzle placing each one on the table as he reached down for more. Before long he began to notice that every piece he picked up fit perfectly into the piece he had picked up prior. He continued picking up pieces and attaching them to their mate as Alexander Hulett 16 his mind drifted off to his recent exploits with the puzzle. He had blindly given these women all his faith only to fall into despair each time one of them left. But to his surprise he did not feel any animosity towards them. In fact, quite the opposite was true; he would forever be indebted to them for the lessons they had taught him along the way. The first woman, revitalizing his hope for a better future. The second, showing him the ugliness of selfishness. And the third woman, opening the doors to his destiny and acting as a final wake up call; showing him that life is beautiful and the key to happiness lies within. He had begged and pleaded for them all to stay, but now saw how foolish that had truly been. They too were trying to reach a solution to their own puzzle; who was he to deny them that search? Snapping himself out of his trance like thought, he looked down to see his puzzle finally coming together. After hours of attaching pieces he reached down to grab the final piece and placed it in the last oddly shaped opening on the table. Looking down at his work, the impossible had finally been made possible. The aura the puzzle exuded throughout the dark room made all the pain and torment of his past slowly fade from the shop keep’s weary heart. After years of searching for a solution her it sat, all the pieces perfectly placed into the crevice of the piece next to them creating an image of his future, beautiful to behold. Why had its completion all of a sudden come so easily when before it seemed impossible? The people that you meet in life are just pieces to your puzzles, not the entire picture. Acting as a guide they can remind you of strengths you long thought lost, pushing you closer to your destiny. The shop keep had spent years hoping to find the solution to this puzzle, yet the moment he ripped himself away from its clutches, Alexander Hulett 17 his future appeared before him; like magic. His past had crushed his faith in himself and he was unaware that everything he needed was still there, hidden deep inside his heart. His faith in himself, his drive to move forward, had been the true solution to the puzzle, not some woman who appeared on his doorstep. Lessons had to be learned, hearts had to be broken, and pieces had to fall into place. Only then could he move on to his next chapter; a whole new puzzle that yearned for his touch. Leaving his shop one last time memories of the last woman remained in his heart but knew he must leave the pain of her departure behind and look to his future…without her. Life is full of puzzles. The pieces slowly come together as you grow and a picture begins to form from the confusion that is hundreds of pieces of cardboard scattered all over a back room table. Many people work on the puzzles just like many people create the picture of your life. Some put entire puzzles together, while others merely attach one piece to another. Yet when all is said and done, the only one who holds the key to your destiny is you. Thankful for all who had led him to this realization he drove off with a new look on life and a familiar spark igniting in his heart, hope. Alexander Hulett 18