Slender Puzzle

Kath wriggled in her chair, trying to ease the aches and pains in her back and ankle.

"Rotten jigsaw," she muttered aloud and finally pushed herself away from the table. She'd been working on the puzzle for almost three hours without a break and had frozen into a hunched position. She leant back into the chair and stretched her arms and twisted her neck side to side to try and release the tension.

Time for a break, she told herself firmly. The crutches they had given her at the hospital were leaning against the table within easy distance of her.

"I can't believe my ankle's broken," she complained to her mother over the phone that very morning. "Six weeks off work at least, the doctors had said. I shall die of boredom I think."

Her mother, Susan, had laughed and Kath had heard the note of relief in her voice. Within half an hour, Susan had turned up at Kath's door with a bundle of gifts in her hand.

"Good job I've got your key Kathleen," she said, as she began to fuss over her injured daughter. "You wouldn't imagine how worried I was when Daniel told me you were at the hospital."

"I did tell him not to mention it until they let me out," said Kath. "I know how you worry."

"Well I'm glad he did, I hate being kept in the dark about things like this." Susan looked around the room. "So where's the lovely husband then? Couldn't take the day off work to help look after you?"

"He had to go to work, Mum," replied Kath, sensing a note of disapproval in her mother's tone. "We can't afford for him to be off as well. When you run your own business, no one can pay you for holidays."

"Or for ill leave either, I suppose," said Susan. "Lucky you have me, then, isn't it?"

Kath hid a look of annoyance behind a yawn. The last thing she wanted on earth was six weeks of nursing from her mother. She was 34 not 14.

"Cup of tea, Mum?" She asked reaching for the crutches.

"Don't you dare, I'll do that. You check out the things I've brought you to help you relax. You may as well try and enjoy your rest. Especially since there isn't really much you can do about it."

"That's what you think." Kath murmured under her breath to herself. "Okay, I'll look"
The carrier bag Susan had brought with her contained things she had thought her poorly daughter would require while housebound. Several books from the library, two jigsaw puzzles, a knitting pattern with some pink wool and needles.

She laid them around Kath's feet like offerings to an idol of an ancient god.

"There you are," she said. "Let me know what you think of that lot."

When the tea arrived in the living room, together with some chocolate biscuits, Kath grinned at her mum.

"I notice you searched half of town," she said "The library…the wool shop, charity shops…"

"Naturally," said Susan. "What else were you planning to do?" She carried over another dining chair and hoisted Kath's plastered leg onto it. "You can knit that jumper you've always been promising yourself, do a bit of reading then do those jigsaws. When you've finished them, I'll take them back to the charity shop and trade them for other ones for you."

Kath picked up the ball of wool.
"Pink?" She said. "I was actually thinking more black or perhaps grey. I can wear them to work then. And I thought you were going to knit that jumper for me?"

"You can't keep relying on me for everything Kathleen."

Kath laughed. She actually knew deep inside her mother was delighted to be able take care of her child again.

"Oh Mum," she said. "I really do appreciate the effort but…"

She passed and waved one of the books in the air. "But serial killers? Really?"

"I don't know what you like to read these days," said Susan looking downcast.

"I like the look of these puzzles though, Mum, even if they are a tad ancient." Said Kath relenting. She didn't want her mum to feel disappointed in herself when she'd gone to all this trouble. "Especially this one."
She pointed at one of the boxes.

Susan picked it up and popped it onto Kath's lap. "I liked it, too. It's so, so…" She paused to think of the right world.

"Green?" Kath suggested.
"No, I was thinking more verdant."

The puzzle was a woodland scene in the summer – the greens of the trees and grasses contrasting with the warm summer sky. Tiny pink, blue and white flowers were scattered through the grass like jewels on green velvet cloth.

"It's lovely," said Kath. "I think I will actually get around to doing this one."

"It reminded me of the woods where we used to live when you were a little girl," said Susan.

Kath blew the dust off the box and nodded agreeing.
"I thought there was something familiar about it."

It took a while for Kath to persuade Susan to go home and leave her to her own devices. "It'll be fine, Mum," she said. "I'll do the jigsaw."

Armed with a flask of tea and a packet of biscuits, Kath settled down to her puzzle. The edges of the puzzle were the first to receive her attention.

As the pieces moved into place, Kath found herself lost in concentration – until the pain in her back reminded her that she hadn't shifted for a couple of hours.

She picked up her crutches and eased herself into a standing position. Looking down at her work she saw the remnants of her work slowly taking form.

She frowned looking over the jigsaw. It seemed very slightly different in comparison to the box. Where the illustration showed the wood in full sunlight, the picture that was appearing on the table seemed to be more in shadow, as if it had been photographed or painted in twilight.

She finished the tea her mother had left and moved over to the sofa, intending to rest until Daniel came home.

"Hello, love. What are you doing there?" Daniel's distant voice reached for her as if it had come down a tunnel or through a toy telephone with tins and string.

Kath raised her head and opened her eyes.

"Oh…," she said, wondering what on earth she was doing back at the table. "I was just having a quick nap."

"You'd have been more comfortable on the sofa," he said, smiling.

"I thought I was…," she said, realising that at some point she'd gone back to the puzzle.

"Let's get you comfy over there now," he said, helping her up. He raised his eyebrows at the picture almost completed on the table. "A jigsaw? I'll have a go at that after dinner."

"NO!" Kath squeaked, her voice an octave higher than usual. "It's mine!"

"Well, sorry, grumpy," he said, stringing out the word in surprise. He took a closer look at it. "It's not very nice, anyway. It's very dark and creepy looking."

Kath peered at the picture.

"Hmm," she said. "You're right. It didn't seem that way when I started it." She frowned. "Mum and I thought it was like the woods where I grew up."

"Really?" He said. "Poor you."

"They weren't dark like that, though. Not all the time, at least."

"I don't like the look of the thin chap standing between the trees," Daniel added thoughtfully.

"I can't see anyone."

"Well, let's leave it for now. I've brought fish and chips home. Let's eat."

After dinner, Kath and Daniel snuggled on the sofa to watch television. Kath found it difficult to concentrate, though. Her thoughts insisted on turning to the jigsaw puzzle that was awaiting completion.

That night she dreamt of trees and sunlit clearings. She danced through the woods in the light and rested between a blanket of leaves as the twilight stole the sparkle of the stars from the air.

She was not alone in her dream. Someone danced with her across the grass and lay with her under the leaves.

"Did I ever tell you," she said to Daniel over breakfast, "that when I was a child I had an imaginary friend?"

Daniel shrugged. "I can't say I remember you telling me," he said. "But, lots of kids do, I believe."

"I'd forgotten all about him," she said. "That jigsaw must have reminded me."

"So long as he doesn't come between us," Dave said with a smile in his voice. He kissed her cheek. "Your mum will be over shortly and then I'll be home early to book dinner. Finish your puzzle, and then you can start on some knitting. That's a rather fetching shade of pink. I quite fancy a jumper in that!"

"It takes a real man to wear pink," Kath said, with a laugh, throwing a playful punch at his shoulder.

By the time Susan had let herself into the house later on, Kath had managed to prop herself at the sink to do the washing up. But she knew there was no arguing with her mother as she ordered her to sit back down again.

"I'll make coffee," Susan said.

Kath knew when to do as she was told. And besides, she was feeling rather drained by the restless night.

Once they were settled in the living room with Kath's foot placed on the chair again, Susan peered at the jigsaw on the table.

"That's not how I remember it looking yesterday," she said. "It's not as nearly so much like our old home like I thought."

"Do you remember me having an imaginary friend while we were there?"

Susan shivered. "Now that you mention it, I do," she said. "Your dad and I were quite worried about it at home time. We took you to see a doctor, but he said it was completely normal."

Kath's gaze was unfocused as she remembered. "It was a man in a suit. We played together in the words. I'd forgotten."

"You called him…the tall man I think."

"No, Slender Man. He was a really tall man with a classy suit and tie on."

Susan shook her head, as if shaking away a memory. "Well anyway, it stopped as soon as we moved away."

"Jigsaw time," announced Kath, struggling to get up.

"I don't like this picture," said Susan, after she had put a few more pieces in place. "Isn't that a figure over there, just coming into the glade?"

"Daniel said it was between the trees," said Kath. "But I can't see anyone there." She places a few more pieces into the puzzle.

"Are you alright, darling?" Susan said looking at her daughter with motherly concern.

"Oh, I just came over a little dizzy," said Kath. "I had a bad night." She places her finger over a section of the puzzle, as if to shield it come her mother.

"Let's stop now," said Susan.

"No, it's almost finished. Let's get it done." Kath slid the last few pieces across the table from Susan. "I'll do it," she said.

"No, don't!" Susan grabbed her wrist and lifted her hand away from the jigsaw. "Look!"

There in the foreground was an empty face, almost smiling menacingly, staring right out at them.

"It's him," whispered Kath. "He remembers me…"

Kath leant towards the face in the picture. "It's not quite finished," she said, reaching for the remaining pieces.

"No!" screamed Susan, as she thrust her hand into the puzzle to muddle the pieces.

But she was too slow.

Kath had popped the last piece in and completed the face – and the reaching arms of the man in the woods.

Daniel felt the silence of the house as he walked through the front door. The noise of the traffic was cut off as if a heavy blanket had been thrown over his head.

"Kath? Susan?" he called.

There was no answer.

He found Susan sitting on the floor of the living room, her eyes closed and her face white.

"Where's Kath?" he asked. The first frissons of fear beginning to rise in his heart.

Susan waved at the table, where the completely jigsaw seemed to glow in a pool of its own summer light. A tall man and a woman were walking hand in hand out of the picture and into the trees.

"Where's Kath?" Daniel said again, more desperately, picking up the crutches from where'd they had been thrown on the floor.

Susan lifted the lid of the puzzle box towards him. There was a long silence as if she was trying to remember how to speak.

"I didn't notice the title of the puzzle," she said at last, tears beginning to tickle down her pale cheeks. "Look."

In a daze he took the box from her and read the title of the puzzle that no one had noticed before.

It had said: Searching for Kathleen.