Solving Puzzles

I let Alex get a few steps ahead of me before pulling out the painkillers and swallowing two dry. I’m not normally one to do that sort of thing - I generally have enough trouble just taking pills with water - but I wasn’t interested in waiting any longer than necessary to make the pain fade.

“I have not been on the water since I was a very small boy,” Alex called over his shoulder as I tucked the rattling bottle back into my bag. “My father used to take me fishing with him – we would bring home carp and rock lobster for dinner.”

“Why did you stop?” I asked before coughing in an attempt to dislodge the pill that had gotten stuck in my throat.

“I became too busy with school and trying to find work to help my family replace our belongings as they broke or were stolen.” He shrugged and smiled, as though such an upbringing was nothing to lose sleep over. I was just thinking that in comparison I had done alright by Cara when he added, “Then my father stopped when his boat was destroyed by one of the hurricanes – I do not remember which one anymore.”

“Strange thing to do,” I said, starting to relax now that relief had begun its magical journey to my right hand, “giving human names to such terrible forces of nature.”

“A hurricane is not terrible,” Alex replied as we entered the sparsely populated waiting room. “It has no sinister motive, no evil intent. It is like a flower reaching for the sun, or the roots of a tree digging into the earth. It does only what it knows to do.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” I told him as I sank down onto one of the unforgiving plastic chairs. “But I’m in no mood to argue so I’ll just let it go this time.”

A frown flickered across his face but was gone so quickly that I thought I might have imagined it. He sat down beside me and I closed my eyes, settling in for our wait. I heard him pull a newspaper from his bag and begin flipping through it, never pausing long enough to read more than a few words.

The ferry arrived right on schedule and I opened my eyes in order to take in the disembarking foot passengers. There are some days that I think people-watching should be an Olympic sport – can you spot the man who’s cheating on his wife? The child running away from home? The ex-con trying to start over? Endless stories in every face, if you care to look for them.

The only person that really captured my attention in that bunch was a woman, travelling alone and carrying nothing besides a tattered, hand knit blue purse. Her eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses which failed to completely obscure the smeared mascara below both eyes, falling like smudged, black tears.

She was only within my sight for five or six seconds but she lingered in my thoughts until it was time for us to board the ship. I thought Alex hadn’t seen her but as we rose, lifting our bags off the floor in unison, he turned to me with a sombre expression that let me know otherwise.

“There is so much sadness in the world,” he said quietly. “We must remember to be grateful for all the goodness we have.”

Yeah – like thank God for painkillers.

I managed to keep that thought to myself and just nodded in response. We joined the short stream of people heading down the hallway to the waiting ferry, handing a crew member our boarding passes before descending the metal ramp that connected land and sea.

We found seats near the front of the ferry, wrinkling our noses as we passed through the greasy scents escaping from the cafeteria, and Alex excused himself to use the washroom while we waited for the cars to finish loading on the decks below us.

The pain in my hand had been replaced with a satisfying numbness once more and my head seemed to be clearer than before. I figured my body must be getting used to the side effects of the pills already. The boat was about half empty, typical for a midday sailing during the week, and our imposing appearances had gained us a row of seats all to our own.

When Alex returned from the bathroom I had extracted my crossword puzzle book from my bag and was in the midst of figuring out how to force my right hand to hold a pencil. Without a word he plucked both items from my grasp and flipped the book open to the crossword I had most recently been working on.

“You a fan of those?” I asked, watching the light yellow pencil between his pink and black fingers as it trailed down the Across clues.

“I have never even tried one,” he said. “What is another word for craving... nine letters, second letter is b.”

“Obsession,” I said after a lengthy delay. Maybe my brain wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders after all. I closed my eyes and sighed softly.

“Maybe you should just rest, let your body heal itself,” Alex suggested and I was in no position to argue. So I just nodded and left him to try his hand at the next puzzle, which instantly became his to finish. I have issues with completing a puzzle once someone else starts it – I’d rather just erase it and start fresh.

“The sailing is about an hour and a half,” I said as the sounds around us began to fade and the darkness of my eyelids deepened. “Wake me up in an hour if I’m still asleep... I need to make a couple of phone calls before we arrive in Nanaimo.”

“Of course,” Alex said, his voice distant and indistinct. As I melted into the land of dreams the last thing I heard was the shrill announcement over the public address system letting us all know that smoking was not permitted anywhere inside the ship.

It must have been while I slept that Alex made his move.

The End

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