The puzzle was one piece short, Benji realized as he slogged his way through constructing an image of pandas parading down a Main Street lined with a menagerie of other animals: elephants, horses, dogs, lions, giraffes.
He lifted the box’s distressed lid to peer underneath, but found nothing, and quickly ducked his head to check beneath the metal table. “What are you doing?” Parker asked from above.
“I’m missing a piece.” Benji brushed his hand over the thin carpet, patting the places he couldn’t see, and most likely picking up a host of germs that he chose not to think about.
“Are you sure?”
“Well, I’m down to five pieces and there’s room for six, so—” He threw his hands in the air exasperatedly. “—unless you’re hiding it or know you’re supposed to finagle one into two, yeah, I’m pretty damn sure,” Benji snapped.
Parker cocked a single eyebrow, his only response. He didn’t have to utter a word. Benji was fluent in his nonverbals, and even if he wasn’t, he knew he probably shouldn’t be tossing daggers at the person who sprinted out of his job scooping ice cream to be with him.
“Sorry. I just—you know.” Benji scrubbed a hand through his hair, further disrupting the strands which already looked like they’d been through a wind tunnel.
“Yeah,” Parker nodded, and slid out of the upholstered green and brown plaid couch from where he’d been working on his end of the puzzle and watching the small TV mounted in the corner—but more often watching Benji— and crawled on his hands and knees along the other side of the table. “Maybe it’s still around here somewhere.”
“I doubt it.” Benji dropped his chin into his palm and arranged the knobs of one puzzle fragment into the gap of another, producing a one-eyed elephant. Each second it stayed incomplete and Parker pawed around on the floor, the more fury twisted itself through Benji’s body until he became an intense, tautly wrapped ball of string. “What the hell kind of place shoves you in a room and then gives you something to do that you can’t even finish? Like do you want someone not to freak out? Then don’t give them a 200-piece puzzle and let them work on it for four hours and figure out there’s only 199 here.”
“I’m guessing they’re aren’t trying to mentally torture you, and they just don’t know it’s gone,” Parker said, feeling his way beneath the vending machines teeming with chips, energy chips, and sandwiches to warm in the adjacent microwave.
Benji pushed himself onto the boxy armchair, its padding so sparse in some places, he could feel the jut of the boards where the foam had been. How did they not have something more comfortable for people in crisis?
Parker leaned against the table, forming a triangle between it, his body, and the floor as he craned his head sideways to get a look at the incomplete creation. “I mean, I get why you’re upset. It’s frustrating, but this looks really good. No offense, but I’m impressed you had the patience to get this far.”
Benji was a bit impressed with himself, too, if he was being honest. Usually he was all motion, and could only keep his attention on something for the same duration as a gnat. If he needed to do a task requiring even a moderate amount of focus, he could rarely do it in one sitting and had to spread it over a bunch of micro work periods. But tonight, he zoned in on the puzzle without breaking away for even a minute. It was probably his brain throwing up a protective barrier to keep him from fixating on something much more impactful. If he would’ve known it was going to end up this way, though, he would’ve never opened the box.
He shouldn’t have yelled, but he did, because it wasn’t just the damn puzzle. That barely registered on the scale of crap that had happened.
No, it was the feeling of the stale air hitting him in cold bursts like it had been for the past four hours. The constant sound of feet moving up and down the hall, but never by him. The shudder in his muscle that hadn’t left since his phone rang in his pocket and his uncle’s boss told him there had been an accident at the body shop. The ache in his hand from where he pounded it into the dash of his car right before he crumbled into the hyperventilating, panic-stricken mess Parker had to pick up. The fact that somewhere in this building, they were cutting into Uncle Reggie, the one person he still called family, the one whose body had been broken into its own hundred-piece puzzle, the one that now might be gone forever. Just like his dad. Basically just like his mom.
“I don’t know,” Parker said.
Benji wanted a different answer, but it was the truest one. All the night had done was cement his belief that there was no rhyme or reason to any centimeter of this giant cluster they called life. There was only bad luck and chaos and complete and utter destruction.
Benji hugged his knees to his chest, tears leaking from his eyes into the fabric of his sweatshirt which had already absorbed thousands of them, his chest rattling with swallowed sobs.
“Hey,” Parker said, getting Benji to lift his gaze from thin threads of his tattered jeans. At the edge of Parker’s outstretched hand was a panda eye—well, a piece of cardboard with an eye printed on it. “It was under the chair,” he said, gesturing to the seat behind him. “Maybe it does mean something still, huh?”
Benji reached forward to take it, and pinched the piece between his thumb and a pointer finger, pressing the corners into his skin before securing it in its space. He wanted the meaning to extend to more than just this combination of ink and pressed paper and laser cuts, but, in the moment, he’d take what he could get. “Maybe.”