TITLE: Malika's Puzzle
By Ellen Dodson
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I hold the blue puzzle piece up to the sky to see if the blues match. The sky's blue looks lighter. I brush away grit from the playground mat so that I can fit it next to the roller-coaster curves of another piece.
"Maleeeekaaaa!" My little sister Sonya bugs her eyes out and whines my name. When I ignore her, she whops the back of my head with her foam noodle. Foam noodles are pointless. I don't know why everyone in Bible camp plays with them.
"Stop it, Sonya! You're going to mess me up!" I say.
Sonya looks around at the other kids and leans in close to my ear. Her smooth black hair tickles my cheek as she whispers. "Come on, Malika. You promised you'd stand under me so that I wouldn't fall my first time across the monkey bars."
She draws back when Trent, one of the older boys, walks toward us. His black eyebrows smash against his eyes as he assumes the position of a
kung fu fighter preparing to karate chop my puzzle.
"Trent, I really don't think you want to mess this up. It's going to be a picture of
Jesus, " I warn.
"Who works puzzles in the summer? Come on. Let's shoot hoops," he says as he shoots an invisible basketball toward the tattered, make-shift net at the end of our playground.
"Maybe later," I say.
Trent shrugs, dribbling his non-existent ball down the court. Sonya stays, pouting at me until she remembers how skilled I am at ignoring her.
When she finally leaves, I look at the puzzle box and wonder if Jesus really looks like the picture. His hair and eyes are dark like mine. He's smiling too. His teeth are perfect and bright white, like a movie star's. I don't know how, though. They probably didn't have toothpaste or dentists back then.
Ms. Jessica, my neighbor and my Bible camp teacher, brings me and Sonya here because she wants us to know Jesus. She believes he's still with us. But, if he is, why can't I see him? How can I know someone who's invisible?
"What are you working on, Malika?" Ms. Jessica's long braid and whistle dangle as she leans forward. Her wide smile is harder to see when she stands right next to the sun.
"It's a Jesus puzzle. It has a hundred and fifty pieces." I hand her the box to
show her the picture of Jesus surrounded by children.
"Wow! I'm not very good at puzzles. It would take me forever to work this. In fact, I've never seen so much of this puzzle worked." Ms. Jessica ran her
hand over the glossy puzzle. "Usually kids get frustrated and give up. Keep it up, Malika. I'll be excited to see the finished masterpiece.
I smile up at her as she places a hand on the top of my head. Flipping over one of the pieces, I see a pair of young, sad eyes. They belong to the smallest child, a little girl like Sonya. On the box an older girl who looks sort of like me has one hand on the smaller girl's shoulder and the other one stretched towards
Jesus. She seems to be leading the little girl to Jesus, and Jesus is smiling right at her.
Maybe I should've been nicer to Sonya. Looking across the playground to check on her, I see three of her five-year-old friends staring at me. They nod and cover wide grins as she says something to them, probably some lame joke
about me. Fine. Maybe now that she's playing, she'll forget about the monkey bars.
Just as I find another perfect fit, a tangle of shadows looms over me and the puzzle. Suddenly Sonya and her friends are laughing and chanting, "Bad sister! Bad sister! You're under arrest, bad sister!" Two of them cuff my arms with their hands while the other two swish foam noodles across the puzzle. When the pieces
don't budge, they use their hands and the edge of their flip-flops to break it apart.
"Ha!" Sonya puts her hands on her hips.
"Sonya!" my scream burns my throat. I squirm, prying prickly little girl fingernails from my wrists, "You big baby! You mess up everything! Just get away from me!"
Sonya turns away. Her shoulders shake. I know she's crying, but I don't care. She's the bad sister.
"Girls, girls." Ms. Jessica's smile wilts. "Linda," she calls to another worker
"I'll be back in a minute." She puts one arm around me and the other around Sonya to lead us under a nearby shade tree. Because Ms.Jessica's beside us, I don't scream at Sonya again when I notice that two puzzle pieces were kicked
all the way into the grass. But the scream burns like hot sauce in my throat as I rescue both pieces.
"Okay, you two. What's going on?" Ms. Jessica asks as she closes her eyes and rubs her temple.
When we yell at the same time, Ms. Jessica blows her whistle. "One at a time, please. Sonya, you first."
"I could fall off the monkey bars and bleed and die!" Sonya glares at me and crosses her arms. "Malika cares more about some dumb puzzle than she does me!"
"But she can't do anything for herself, Ms. Jessica. I help her all the time. She can't even climb the monkey bars without help. And the puzzle isn't dumb!" I point to the sky. "It's a picture of Jesus!"
"You're afraid of the monkey bars, Sonya?"
Ms. Jessica asks softly.
Sonya looks down at a yellow dandelion, kicks off her flip-flop, and smashes the flower with her heel.
"It's okay, Sonya. You know," Ms. Jessica kneels down beside Sonya, "I was afraid of sliding boards when I was your age."
"You were?" I ask. Sonya and I peek at one another and lower our faces to hide our grins.
"Why, sure! And I think, Malika, that when Sonya asks you for help she is paying you a compliment. She trusts you.
"Yeah, I guess," I say, though I'm still a little mad.
"Sonya, I know you felt good about breaking up Malika's puzzle while you were doing it, but how do you feel now?"
Sonya uproots blades of grass between her toes. Tears slip from under her long eyelashes. "I'm sorry," she says in a shaky voice.
"I'll let the two of you work this out," Ms. Jessica says gently as she hugs us. "Just don't take too long. We'll be going in soon."
I want to tell Sonya I'm sorry too, but I just stare at the tree trunk, pretending that I'm still mad. The rescued puzzle pieces slide against my sweaty palm. When I move them to the other hand, I notice that one of them is the little girl's sad eyes. The second piece is part of the caption that's at the bottom
of the puzzle, "Jesus loves the . . . "
". . . little children," I whisper. I wonder if Jesus expects me to love Sonya like Ms. Jessica says He loves us. I do love my little sister.
"I'm sorry too. I didn't keep my promise," I admit as I hug Sonya. "Tell you what. I'll help you across the monkey bars, and then you can help me pick up the puzzle mess."
Sonya squeals and grabs my hand to lead me toward the play mat.
Trent, a few other older kids, and Sonya's friends sit around the puzzle. This one goes here. That one goes over there, they say to one another. Most of the puzzle is worked.
"Hope you don't mind, Malika." Trent presses two pieces together and smiles at me. "We know you spent a lot of time on the puzzle and feel bad that it was messed up. It's kind of cool once you see it all come together."
Sonya sits down and pats the spot next to her, "Over here, Malika. You have
the last two pieces."
I fill in the missing pieces and step back to look at the completed puzzle. Then I
smile at Jesus who is surrounded by so many children.
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