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Since Trish Taylor came back home to Aurora, Colorado, she had found ten jigsaw puzzle pieces. They seemed to be everywhere: on the sidewalk near her house, in the parking lot at the grocery store, in the park where she walked her dogs.
Trish’s grandmother used to put jigsaws together. Now, a different type of woman would have started to think something funny was going on, that all these puzzle pieces were some kind of sign. But Trish wasn’t the kind who believed in symbols or signs from above. No gods, ghosts, afterlives, religion, or anything that couldn’t be studied and quantified.
She believed in a life force. She had felt it when she was pregnant, and had seen it in animals in the different clinics where she had worked. So natural? Yes. But supernatural? No way, José. She’d known there wasn’t a god since she was four years old, when her mother and baby sister were killed in a car accident.
She’d been on her way to work this morning at Friendly’s Animal Hospital when she’d found the eleventh puzzle piece on the sidewalk right in front of the doors. She picked it up and bounced it in her left hand, the small pasteboard piece making a soft clicking sound against the peridot mother’s ring she wore where her wedding ring used to be. The question that came to her when she found the first puzzle piece tickled the back of her mind, but again she dismissed it. One of her coworkers must have dropped it on the way in. Or maybe a client’s child had lost it yesterday.
“Don’t be silly,” she said to herself, blowing blond bangs out of her eyes. She slid the jigsaw piece into the pocket of her scrubs and went inside to stock the treatment rooms with supplies before the first clients arrived. She set the puzzle piece on the front counter while she reached for her key to the supply room and pharmacy.
“Qué es?” Alicia Alemán asked.
Alicia, the practice manager, was the closest thing to a friend Trish had since she returned to Colorado. Friendly’s was a three-doctor practice. All the vets were male and over forty. The rest of the staff was female, and most were so young Trish and Alicia secretly called them fetuses. Half-Mexican and half-Cuban, Alicia was even shorter than Trish (who was only five foot one) and reminded her of a beautiful tabby cat. Fat and sleek at the same time, caramel-skinned, with lush black hair. The definition of the word feminine. No matter the weather, she was always in heels and a skirt. One evening they went for drinks after work and Trish watched a man jab his chin with a fork full of food, missing his own mouth, because he was staring at Alicia.
“Nothing. I found it. I keep finding pieces of puzzles.”
“Cómo que. . .?”
“I’ve found eleven puzzle pieces in the last month.”
“All over town.”
Alicia scrunched up her face, creating charming little wrinkles around her eyes. “To the same puzzle?”
“No. Different parts of different puzzles.”
“Why would you be finding puzzle pieces?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you do puzzles?”
“No.” Trish hesitated. If she said the ridiculous idea she couldn’t seem to shake, the conversation was going to veer in a direction she was pretty sure she didn’t want it to go. “My grandmother liked to do puzzles.”
“Your abuela who’s dead?”
Alicia was very close to her family. A semi-lapsed Catholic, she was divorced and only went to mass on Easter and Christmas Eve, but she still crossed herself before she ate and lit a candle to St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, every time they lost a patient.
“Don’t get all weird on me,” Trish said. “It’s just a coincidence.”
“Believing in ghosts isn’t weird.”
“Uh, I don’t know about on your planet, but on my planet it is.”
“Hey, my people invented a whole day to celebrate those who have passed on. On El Día de los Muertos we decorate and play music and put out food as offerings for our dead relatives.”
“But that’s totally symbolic. You don’t really think they come back to eat the food.”
“Mira, your abuela could be trying to talk to you.”
Though she wasn’t ready to admit it, this was the question that was swirling around in her mind: Were the puzzle pieces from Nana? “To say what? The woman barely spoke to me when she was alive. Why would she start talking to me now?”
“Se las da de sabihonda.” Alicia said to herself with frustration, tucking a few strands of hair that had the audacity to go astray behind her ear. The rest of the female staff wore jewelry with little dogs or cats on it. No critter earrings for Alicia though. Today, she had small gold hoops in her ears. Trish would have bet money that Alicia slid out of her mother’s womb wearing pearls. Simple and elegant even at birth. “She’s not my grandmother. How should I know?”
“The only advice she ever gave me was ‘Keep your legs crossed until you graduate.’ ”
Alicia laughed. “That’s not the worst advice I ever heard.”
“And why is it that when the dead ‘speak’ they don’t come out and say what they mean? Why do they always use mysterious hints and clues? I mean really, fuck. Nana, if you’ve got something to say, just say it already.”
“This is how you speak to your grandma?”
Trish rolled her eyes. “That’s my point. She can’t hear me.”
“That’s my point. You’re so fresca, cynical. You think life is supposed to always make sense. Not everything about life and death is so reasonable and rational. You watch, once you figure out what she’s trying to tell you, you’ll stop finding puzzle pieces.”
She got a fun-size chocolate bar out of the bowl on the counter. “Here. I know you think chocolate makes sense.”
“Sadly, this is true,” Trish said, opening the foil and popping the candy into her mouth. Chocolate, doughnuts, cookies, and pizza were Trish’s four food groups. The sweetness melting on her tongue now was almost enough to make her forget the fact that she had gone up another dress size since her separation and divorce. She’d always been chunky, but now about the only thing she felt comfortable in were her drawstring scrubs.
Back when things were good, Tommy, her ex, who was black, used to tease her about her curves, saying things like, “How’d a white girl end up with a big juicy booty like this?” But a few years after having Will she went from having a luscious ass to being fat and boring, and by the time Will was four, Tommy was cheating on her.
“I totally have to go on a diet,” she said.
Alicia rubbed her chin theatrically. “Hmmm. Where have I heard that one before?”
Trish frowned. It was all Tommy’s fault. So she gained a little weight after getting married and having a baby. Who didn’t? But the real weight didn’t start to pile on until after she started finding condoms in his pocket and strange phone numbers on his cell.
“I mean it this time. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to change something.” And not only her weight. Trish had ostensibly come back to Colorado from North Carolina to escape the heat and humidity, but there was more to it than that. She was also hoping she’d be able to figure some things out. She was thirty-six and divorced, and her only son would leave the nest in a couple of years. If she wasn’t going to be a wife and a mom, what was she going to be? Somehow she thought that if she came back to the place where she and Tommy had started, and where her family had started and disintegrated, she’d be able to figure out who she was again. If there was anything left for her, it had to be here.
But the last eight months had been taken up finding a house and a job and enrolling Will in school. She worked four days a week for at least ten hours, often eleven or twelve. And between her job, Will, and her dogs, she found herself just as lost here as she had been back in North Carolina.
“Maybe your abuela is trying to give you some clues about how to change.”
Trish nearly choked on her candy. Nana giving anybody clues about changing their life was totally crazy. She looked at the clock. “I better get started. It’s almost time to open the madhouse.”
Over the course of the day, they saw a Lab that had swallowed six rocks, several vomiting cats, a cat that had killed a squirrel (a serious concern, since some squirrels in the area had tested positive for the plague), a dog that had been hit by a car, and lots of dogs and cats being treated for diseases like kidney failure, cancer, and diabetes. Trish barely had time to go to the bathroom, let alone think about puzzles and her dead grandmother.
At the end of the day, Shelli Pierce, one of their regular clients, brought in a Boston terrier she’d found.
“Left at Chatfield Reservoir like so much garbage,” Shelli said furiously in a clipped accent still reminiscent of a childhood spent in England, her bushy ginger hair quivering with indignation. She was a compact woman with tiny round eyes and a sharp, cunning face like a Pomeranian.
The Boston terrier’s ribs were showing, his breath was bad, and he had no tags or ID chip.
“I’d put him about a year old, and he hasn’t been neutered,” Dr. Pat muttered as he examined him.
That was how friendly Friendly’s was: Clients were encouraged to call the vets by doctor and their first names.
Tall, skinny, hawk nosed, Patrick Volt was from the old days of vet med, when it was a man’s game. Trish had hated Patrick since she started working there. Today, most veterinarians and technicians were women, but Dr. Pat treated everybody but the other doctors like servants. Well, except for Alicia. Nobody fucked with Alicia.
“Definitely mange,” Dr. Pat said authoritatively, parting the dog’s matted fur to look at his skin.
Trish mentally rolled her eyes. It didn’t take six years of schooling to know that.
“He keeps dragging his bum,” Shelli volunteered. “So I brought in a fresh sample.”
“I’m sure we’ll find worms.”
We as in me, Trish thought, accepting the plastic bag of dog poop Shelli held up.
“Look at those big beautiful eyes,” Shelli cooed to the scared dog. “Don’t worry, puppy. I’ll take you home soon. Yes I will. Yes I will.”
Trish knew this was coming. Their records showed that Shelli had five dogs and six cats, more animals than the city allowed, and the staff was almost certain Shelli had other pets that she took to another clinic. “Just how many dogs do you have now?” Trish asked.
“What are you implying? I’m the good guy here! I saved this dog’s life!” Shelli snapped. “Are you saying I don’t take care of my animals? Because I take care of my animals! You should know that, considering you people have made a small fortune off me. I do not have to take this!”
She held her head high as if suddenly the animal smell of the clinic was disturbing her fine senses. But her overreaction only confirmed Trish’s suspicions.
Dr. Pat’s dark bushy eyebrows flew up. It always freaked Trish out that his eyebrows were black, but his hair had gone gray.
“That is not how we converse with our clients. Please apologize right now!”
Grrr. “I’m just looking out for you and the welfare of all your animals. That’s all.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do too.”
Well, at least she knows that someone around here has an eye on her. “Good. Then I apologize and I’m glad we agree.” Trish turned to go to the lab with the bag of feces.
“Apology accepted,” Shelli said grudgingly. “I’ll be back to pick up Jigsaw tomorrow.”
Trish spun around. “Excuse me? What did you call him?”
Dr. Pat glared down at Trish over his bifocals. “Jigsaw’s a great name! Very unique,” he said.
Shelli beamed. “I thought of it because he’ll fit so well with the rest of the family. All my dogs are little ones, so they don’t scare the cats. He’ll fit right in.”
The tickling in the back of her mind got a little stronger, but Trish still didn’t believe that Nana was somehow communicating from beyond the grave. Trish was sure as shit that she wasn’t supposed to let this dog go home with a hoarder.
After she went to the lab, she walked Shelli out to the front door. Just before she opened it, she leaned in close and whispered forcefully, “You’re not taking that dog home. You have enough, more than enough animals.”
Shelli gasped, but Trish held up one hand to stop her. “And I’m prepared to call animal control and file a report to prove it if I have to.”
The tiny woman cringed. “You wouldn’t.”
Trish opened the door. “Try me.”
Shelli drew all fifty-some inches of herself up straight and puffed her chest out. “I’ve been thinking I should look for another veterinarian. Now I’m sure of it,” she said with a huff and marched out.
Trish closed the door behind her. It was time to lock up. She went into her pocket for the keys and the curves of the puzzle piece she had found that morning scratched a question she struggled to ignore against her fingertips. No way am I calling that poor dog Jigsaw, she thought. She turned the sign over so it read “Sorry, We’re Closed” and locked the door behind her.
Billie Cousins shook exactly seven drops of sunflower oil mixed with lavender and rose essential oils into the palms of her hands. Then she bowed her head.
“Grandmothers and grandfathers,
Please watch over me.
Please watch over my man.
Please watch over the child growing inside me, who is of him and of me.
Thank you for your wisdom.
Thank you for your strength.
Thank you for your protection.
We’ll name our baby Ambata, she thought. “To connect” in Kiswahili. She said it out loud, “Ambata,” and anointed a pink candle with the blessing oil. Pink, the color of health and spiritual and familial love. She lit the candle and placed it on the low white-cloth-covered table next to the stick that showed the word “pregnant” in its little window. Also on the makeshift altar were a glass of fresh water (purification), a cobalt blue bowl filled with cornmeal (to feed the ancestors’ spirits), a scallop shell (representing the Great Mother from which we all come), a few copper pennies (an offering to the ancestors), and photos of her deceased grandparents and great-aunts and
-uncles. Because Billie didn’t have an actual photo of her great- grandmother—the Cheyenne Indian who had passed down her long nose, narrow eyes, and wide cheekbones to her—she had framed a picture of a Cheyenne girl taken by the famous Western photographer Edward S. Curtis.