Rachel loved puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles. Thousand-piece clear-blue-sky and flowery-meadow puzzles. Cute little puppy-dog-face puzzles. Any kind of puzzle suited her fancy. She loved the challenge of putting one together, piece by piece. Discovering the piece that fit was always thrilling and a small victory over the manufacturer who had labeled the puzzle "difficult."
For her thirteenth birthday, Rachel received a package in the mail from her Aunt Lola, who shared her passion for puzzles. When she ripped open the box, she found a one-thousand- five-hundred-piece puzzle with a painting of a colonial farm and the surrounding forest on it.
It was very detailed, with a mother working in the garden while two girls hung up the wash and a boy led the cows out to pasture. A farmer worked in the fields and a large wooden barn stood off to the left. At the edge of the field was a forest and a gravel road running through it. The farmhouse and various animals were also included in the busy scene.
Rachel sat working on her puzzle: "Colonial Farm: A Painting by George Smits." She put together most of the puzzle pieces and was working on the forest. Being the imaginative type, Rachel thought the girls didn't look like they were having much fun. She wondered if those colonial girls could ever have fun like she had, perhaps in the forest.
She thought, That would make a good basis for a novel. I wonder if Kathryn Lasky has written anything like that. I should go to the library and find out.
She checked her watch and realized that the library wasn't open.
Anyway, she thought, I'm too tired to walk to the library. I'll go tomorrow.
Rachel stared at the puzzle again, searching for the place where a piece with trees on it would fit. As she gazed into the scene, she drifted off to sleep, right on top of the unfinished puzzle.
When Rachel woke up, she fumbled around for the puzzle piece she was trying to fit in. Once she found it, she examined it to refresh her memory. It was a clothespin! Not a puzzle piece! Rachel rubbed her eyes. A clothespin? Why, it was. She turned around and found herself facing a girl she had never seen before.
"Nan," said the girl, "why are you staring like that? You look as though you've never seen a clothespin before."
My name's not Nan, Rachel thought. It was then that it dawned on her, though she could scarcely believe it, that she was in the puzzle.
Rachel stood up and walked around. Yes, there was the barn and there was the field and there was the mother in the garden. Yes, she was in the puzzle.
"Nan, where are you going? We have to finish hanging up the wash!" the girl cried.
Rachel decided that the girl was talking to her and she would answer to the name Nan until she got out of the puzzle, if she ever did.
She walked back toward the clothesline to join the girl to hang up clothes.
After they had finished, the mother called them over to help in the garden. The girl and her mother were soon engaged in a lively conversation about the upcoming quilting bee with some of their friends.
"Nan, dear," said the mother, pausing in her conversation, "it is unlike you to be so quiet. Just yesterday, you were talking up a storm about how a patchwork quilt is just like one of those jigsaw puzzles in John McGregor's store. You and Cathrine stared at them all morning the last time we were in town, before the world fell apart."
OK, Rachel thought, this is odd, the mother must be my mother and the girl must be Cathrine. My sister, maybe? I wonder . . .
Her mother interrupted her thoughts, exclaiming how time did fly and telling her to go help her sister take the wash off the line. Their working in the garden, while holding up a decent conversation, had taken all afternoon!
The phrase "time flies when you're having fun" came to Rachel's mind, but fun wasn't the exact word to describe it. Now she knew why the girls in the puzzle weren't smiling.
* * *
Dinner had been interesting for Rachel, meeting the farmer who was supposedly her father and the boy with the cows who was her brother. Having onion soup and brown bread to eat instead of lasagna was also different.
Now she and Cathrine were talking up in the loft where they should have been sleeping. Actually, Cathrine was doing most of the talking. She kept referring to fun times they had enjoyed together before the world had fallen apart. Rachel, of course, had no idea what Cathrine was talking about and nodded her head in agreement, as Cathrine fondly recalled trips to town and Independence Day celebrations.
"Cathrine," Rachel asked abruptly, "what is this about the world falling apart?"
"Oh, Nan, don't be dense," Cathrine replied. "You were the one in tears over not being able to go to McGregor's store because the world was broken. And call me Cath; you always used to. What's wrong with you? You've been so mindless lately."
Rachel shrugged, rolled over, and went to sleep.
* * *
All the next day Rachel was kept busy with endless chores: working in the garden, sewing, and cooking. As she labored, she pondered what everyone meant by the world "falling apart." That was the reason for no trips to town, and why they were isolated on the farm. Then she realized that she was in a puzzle, and what did people do to puzzles after they had been put together? They took them apart, of course! That was why her puzzle-family couldn't go off the farm; the puzzle wasn't fully put together. But how could they ever go to town, if there was no town on the puzzle? Oh, this was all so confusing. But anyway, Rachel thought, not everything has to make sense.
Rachel turned her attention to herself. She realized that she had to get off the farm and out of the puzzle, if at all possible. She figured that in order to get out of the puzzle, it would have to be put together. But how could she do that if she was in the puzzle? It was all too much for her to fathom.
Her mother called from the other room.
I'd better get working, Rachel thought.
That evening, Rachel and Cath searched the house for scraps to take to the quilting bee. Cath had said it was taking longer than usual for the world to put itself together and the bee probably wouldn't happen for a while. But Rachel, of course, now knew the reason and suggested they start looking anyway.
While they dug through their mother's scrap basket, Rachel mustered up the courage to ask how they were going to get to the bee. Cath responded with a tone of disgust at what to her seemed like a game of stupidity that Rachel was playing. She did answer, however, saying that when the world was together, they went down a road through the forest.
That was what Rachel had wanted to hear. Now she knew what would be on the pieces she was looking for, and where they would connect to the rest of the puzzle.
Later that night, Rachel went to bed feeling a sense of accomplishment.
* * *
It was Sunday afternoon. No work was done on the Sabbath day, so Rachel was free to do some piece-hunting.
She walked to the edge of the puzzle and looked out into a vast ocean of grayness. Off in the distance she could see an island that must have been a piece of the puzzle. It was too far away, she thought. Being so tiny, she would never reach it.
I bet I know what is on it, she mused, and she pictured several lush green trees and a sliver of the road near the edge. And before her eyes, that very puzzle piece slid over and connected itself. Rachel was so astonished and pleased that she imagined what would go next to the first piece. It, too, appeared and fit itself in. Rachel's task of putting the puzzle together now seemed exceedingly simple.
For the next week, Rachel began to imagine the puzzle together whenever she had a moment to spare. Her puzzle-family became increasingly joyful at the connection of every piece.
By the time Sunday rolled around again, the puzzle was complete. Rachel left the house after lunch. She was as ecstatic about going back to her real home as Cath was about the quilting bee. As she walked along the gravel road, she wondered when this would end and reality would begin. Or would she end up in the town Cath had talked about? But the approaching darkness of evening gave Rachel the opportunity to sleep on her questions.
Rachel awoke to the sound of chattering. Not of squirrels and forest creatures, but a human voice she didn't recognize. She knew that the quilting bee wouldn't be for a couple of days, so she wondered whose voice it could be.
She opened her eyes to see her mother, her real mother, talking away on the phone. She was home!
It must have all been a dream, Rachel thought. But on the table was the puzzle. Completed.