Libby Heily is a writer based in New York. Her young adult fantasy series is published through Fire and Ice YA Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications including Daily Science Fiction, Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal, Twisted Sister Literary Magazine, and Theaker’s Quarterly. Her short story, “Grow Your Own Dad” garnered a Pushcart Prize nomination. Libby’s plays have received readings from Seattle to New York and several productions including at Cary Playwrights Forum, Sonorous Road Theater, and Hot Metal Arts Collective. You can always visit her at libbyheily.com.
Her skin is broken by delicate silver lines. I’m staring. I can’t help it. I’ve never seen a Puzzle in person before. The lines look like mercury, alive and moving. I didn’t expect them to shimmer. That wasn’t in the videos.
Alyssa clears her throat and I know she’s caught me.
“Sorry,” I say. I’m not the only one who owes her an apology. The coffee shop is full of peeping toms, sneaking furtive glances over their lattes.
“I can cover them with makeup,” Alyssa says. “Most of us do.”
“You wanted to show me what he’s going to look like?” I ask, plucking a blueberry from my scone. I squish it against the plate. It doesn’t ooze—too dried out. I know the feeling.
A little girl, standing by her mother in line, points at Alyssa. “Look Mommy, a Humpty!”
It reminds me of the game I played with John on long car rides. I spy a cow. I spy a barn. I spy a shattered woman who’s been put back together again.
“We don’t use that word,” the girl’s mother whispers, her voice low and harsh.
“Yes we do!”
A nervous titter rises in my throat.
Alyssa barely glances their way. “We prefer to be called Puzzles.”
“I’m so sorry,” the mother says. “I don’t know where she hears these things.”
The little girl’s eyebrows pull into a scowl. “From dad. He says putting Humpties back together is a waste of time.”
The mother scoots her daughter out of the cafe. Everyone has suddenly become very interested in their phones.
I squish another blueberry. Juice explodes, leaving a Rorschach pattern on the plate. I only see a blob that needs to be shaped. Weeks of Puzzle training will do that to you.
“That doesn’t happen as often as you think,” Alyssa says. “Most people are pretty supportive, or at least they judge silently.”
The thought of my son being teased, even now, even grown, hurts. I can’t protect him from words. I can’t protect him from anything.
Alyssa reaches across the table. The lines of her fingers sparkle in the fluorescent light as she caresses my hand.
“You shouldn’t have to comfort me. After that. I should be comforting you.” But I didn’t. John wouldn’t have been surprised.
“I’m used to it.”
She takes her hand back and I’m relieved. Not because of the lines, but because it’s so unfamiliar now, being touched.
“I’m worried that I won’t be able to put my son together, that I’ll mess him up. Again. I’m not sure I should even try.”
“Is there anyone else?”
I shake my head. “His father died some years back. I think John’s burned through his friendships. Money troubles. I’ve settled some debts since . . .” I can’t say since he fell apart, even though that’s what happened.
“You should definitely try. It’ll be better for him if there’s a familiar face when he wakes up.”
I’ve told myself the same thing. I still don’t believe it. There’s familiar, and then there’s family.
“Did it hurt?” I ask.
“Any of it.”
“I was in a lot of pain before I fell apart. But the actual falling apart...it’s hard to describe. I was alone in my apartment, as usual, and then I wasn’t. All I felt was rest, something tranquil yet transformative. Like a cocoon, maybe? I didn’t feel myself being put back together, not physically. I wasn’t even aware of it until my volunteer got to my knees. Then I could feel it a little bit, but it didn’t hurt.”
I squish another blueberry and shape another blob in my mind.
I pull on the white latex gloves that complete my uniform. The paper-thin coverall swishes when I move. I guess it’s meant to give aesthetic comfort. It certainly won’t protect against any real contamination. You can’t catch diseases from the Puzzles. We’ve been told that many times. A visiting doctor even used charts and diagrams to show us how the body is in complete stasis when it falls apart and cannot communicate disease. But we still have to wear gloves and coveralls.
I shut my locker. The girl beside me shuts hers. Girl, she’s in her twenties. Woman. It’s so hard for me to think of anyone John’s age as grown.
“Are you ready? This is going to be amazing!” She smiles so wide, I’m afraid it hurts her face. Relentlessly cheerful. She asked a lot of questions during training. I still don’t know her name.
I nod. I’m three times her age but feel hundreds of years older.
The girl pulls on her gloves, the only thing missing from her ensemble. “Well, see you out there!” she says and bounces to the door.
I rub my temples. It’s something I do when I need a moment, a way to collect myself. Leon, my husband, used to say I was recharging my motor. The thought makes me smile. Leon had a kindness to him, an innate gentleness. He was a natural father. I have no maternal instinct, only the ability to do what needs to be done. I was functional. Leon was loving. The wrong parent died.
“He needs you,” I mumble to myself. The refrain from John’s childhood.
I step into the Great Hall and into a humming that feels otherworldly. Like a hundred tuning forks reverberating at once—the sound a body makes as its pieces fuse together again.
The room is immense; perhaps it’s the whiteness that makes it feel so large, like an 80s movie version of heaven. The frescos, the arched ceiling, the marble floor. Grand and overwhelming. It used to be the courthouse until it was repurposed.
A woman is waiting for me, a clipboard pinned firmly against her side. Her name tag says Kassidy. “Do you need a moment?” she asks as I draw near. I must look lost, or in awe. I feel a bit of both.
“No. I want to see my son.”
Kassidy pats me on my shoulder. I’m not a hugger, but I don’t recoil at her touch either. I accept it, passively. Maybe I didn’t hug John enough.
“I understand,” she says. Her sympathy sounds forced, a bureaucrat saying learned words. “Are you ready?”
I follow her past rows of metal tables, each covered with either a mound of human pieces or a body partially formed, past fellow volunteers hunched over their Puzzles, some wearing magnifying spectacles.
The pieces of John are waiting for me in the back corner of the room. Bits of him rest in a heap on a slick silver table. Beside it is another table, clean and empty. Most pieces are no bigger than an inch. I thought I’d recognize some part of my son, his eyes, his lips, but the pieces are too small and their lack of proximity too jarring. All I see is a hill of chunks, some covered in skin, some not, of solid human flesh. No blood, not the liquid kind anyway. It’s as if each bit had been lacquered and shellacked—tchotchkes for the deranged. I’ve seen this in videos, but it’s different in real life. It’s different when it’s your boy.
“Where do I start?” I ask Kassidy. My voice breaks, but she ignores it.
She checks her clipboard. “Jodi? Is that right?”
I nod. It might’ve been a good idea to make sure I was the right person before she led me to my son, but the question sounds more perfunctory than genuine. A way of establishing a connection.
“Well, Jodi, we’re going to start with sorting.”
I stare down at my son, the smashed mosaic of his flesh. I touch a piece of skull with John’s dark hair attached, straight and thick. I want to pick it up, to start the process. The skull seems easy enough.
Tears prick my eyes, but I refuse to let them fall. There’s work to be done. I can’t cry and function at the same time.
“I can put his head together,” I say. “The skull at least. I could do that today.”
“We’ll start with sorting the pieces first,” Kassidy says firmly but still smiling. “Putting like pieces with like pieces.”
“But it would be so easy—" I start and only stop when Kassidy’s frown reaches her chin.
“We can’t tell you how to put your loved one together,” Kassidy says. Her voice sounds artificial, like a recording. “But we do recommend saving the head for last. It’s less traumatic for you and for them.”
“Okay.” I mumble the word like a surly teenager.
“Have you seen a fusion?” Kassidy asks.
“Only in a video.”
“Then we’ll do one. There’s usually a couple of pieces that fuse during the sorting process and I don’t want you to be surprised.”
I watch, helpless, as Kassidy digs through my son. Her claw-like hands rake through the pile, toppling pieces of John to the table below. My arms tense. My hands clench into fists.
She pulls two pieces of finger from the heap and holds them next to each other. “Here we are.”
“Sorry. One sec.” She reaches in again and pulls out another piece of finger and holds it next to the first. The two pull together like magnets. They hum as they fuse together, becoming one. A small piece of John is back together, scarred by a thin silver line.
My son is little piles of skin, bones, muscle, blood, sinew, fascia, tendons, hair, snot, organs, eyes, and brains. Each pile a different region of the body. John is in pieces. Not bleeding, not gooey or gelatinous, but with a stiff rigidity that makes him feel inhuman.
“Why don’t we stop for the day?” Kassidy says as I stare at the rubble of my son.
“I thought I could stay until six?”
“You can. But we’re done sorting. During this process, you’ll have to take care of yourself as much as your Puzzle. It’s best to ease into it.”
I glance down at John. I don’t want to go.
The locker room is mostly empty when I return. There are only a few newbies here, most of the more seasoned volunteers will stay through the whole shift.
The door opens as I fold my coverall. The over-eager volunteer comes in, tearing off her gloves.
“Can you believe they’re making us leave! I could’ve easily stayed another couple of hours. They need to take past volunteer experience into account,” she says. “I used to foster dogs. I know about patience.”
“I raised a child,” I say, attempting to commiserate.
“Yeah, but foster dogs have a lot of issues.”
I don’t know what to say, but I doubt she’d hear me past her own indignation anyway.
My apartment seems even quieter than normal after the constant humming in the Great Hall. It’s too early for dinner and my shows don’t start for another couple of hours. I don’t want to be alone. I don’t remember the last time I felt that way. There are no neighbors in the lounge, there never are. I take a walk in the woods behind my building and think about the last time I saw John whole. It was three years ago, on his 21st birthday. I took him to what used to be his favorite restaurant, a Chinese place in the city. He didn’t eat there anymore, he said. I bought him a beer he didn’t drink. He said he’d given up alcohol even though he smelled of whiskey. I told him how proud his father would’ve been of him, working, renting his own place. John didn’t say much, just ate.
He didn’t answer when I called him after that.
My hands shake as I place the first part of my son on the empty table, a notch of tough skin attached to hard muscle, the heel of his foot. I’m not sure which foot, but Kassidy told me during our morning check in not to worry about that. It would make sense when I got to the instep. No piece would fuse in the wrong place.
I search through the “feet” pile, occasionally removing a piece and holding it to the bit of heel. Nothing’s fusing. I’m failing. John will never be whole, and it will all be my fault. I curse after the sixth try.
“Hey,” the man at the next station says. “Don’t worry. It’ll get easier, you’ll see.”
I didn’t notice him the day before. I was aware there were other people in the Great Hall, but between Kassidy and John, I didn’t care. The man is in his late 30s, with just a tinge of gray in his dark hair. On the table behind him is a woman’s legs and part of her belly, stopping just below the navel.
“That must’ve taken you weeks,” I say, hoping it isn’t rude. I can’t imagine John in that same state, not at this pace.
The man smiles. “One week. But don’t let that discourage you. This is our third time.”
“This is your third Puzzle?”
The man smiles. “No. Yes, but no. This is my wife. She’s fallen apart three times.”
“Oh.” I don’t know what to say.
“I’m Derek. This is Grace,” he says, pointing to the half body behind him. “Let me know if you need anything. The first couple of days are the scariest.”
“That’s kind of you.”
He shrugs. “We can all use a little kindness.”
I lean back over and take another piece from the pile. It doesn’t fuse either. It takes me three more tries and I nearly call out when the hum fills the air.
By lunch I’ve managed to make it to an instep. I’ve been putting together John’s left foot.
I sit alone in the cafeteria, drinking bitter coffee and nibbling on a vending machine sandwich. I’ll pack my lunch tomorrow, like I used to do for John. I’ll cut the sandwich diagonally, the way John liked it. Leon told me that. I never knew. It’s not that I noticed nothing. Leon preferred his coffee with milk and no sugar, his soup just shy of boiling even though he’d let it cool before eating, his towel refolded in thirds after a shower. But I never noticed John’s little quirks of preference.
The overeager volunteer rushes in and gobbles a sandwich, washing it down with a soda. She’s done in under five minutes and heads back to her Puzzle. I wonder if I should rush, but my legs ache and I need the rest.
There are other volunteers sitting in groups, chatting. It reminds me of school, of sitting alone in the cafeteria. I am someone who ends up alone. High school, college, at work, too, until Leon joined me in the break room. My one and only lunch buddy. He made a joke about having a reservation and I smiled. He asked me on a date at the end of lunch. I was nearly 30. I’d been on exactly four dates, all blind, all over within an hour.
Derek sits down at my table. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says.
I shake my head.
“You doing okay?”
I nod. My voice doesn’t want to work.
“Do you know the person you’re putting back together?” he asks as he unwraps his sandwich.
Derek takes a bite and chews slowly, nodding as he does so. “Did they tell you who’s going to do the head?” he asks.
“What?” I’m stunned. “I am.”
Derek puts down his sandwich. “I was afraid of that. They leave things out in training.”
“Like what?” I ask. My stomach has shrunk to the size of a pea.
“It’s the eyes, I think. Or just that you can see the Puzzle becoming a person. It’s freaky, a little. The eyes follow you, watch you. But if you do them last, then you have the mouth, and the mouth is even worse. If you do the mouth first, they whimper until they’re complete.”
“I didn’t know that.” My stomach heaves and I try to cover my discomfort with a cough. John whimpering.
“They almost all scream when the last piece fuses. The screams are awful. It’s primal, that sound. So, most volunteers make it to the neck and then stop. There’s no shame in that. If you have to do it, don’t feel bad. There are volunteers who specialize in doing heads. He’ll be in good hands.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I say. I try to imagine John screaming. I can feel the tears moistening my eyes.
Derek takes up his sandwich once more. “You have anything fun planned after this?”
I shake my head. Dinner. My shows. Maybe a bit of light reading before bed. Those are my evenings.
“I’m headed to my son’s t-ball game then taking the kids for pizza.”
“That sounds nice.”
He pulls out his phone and shows me pictures of his children. I nod and smile—it’s what’s expected—but I see John in every photo, in every gap-toothed smile and silly pose. John was such a happy boy.
“Well, I’m ducking out early today so I’m going to head back. Take your time though. You don’t want to burn out.”
I sit for a just a bit longer, wanting to finish my coffee and look out over the garden. I’m not a gardener, Leon did that.
I head back to the Great Hall and to John. My thoughts fade away as I concentrate on finding the next piece. Soon, I’m lost in the hum of fusion.
“Jodi, it’s time to go,” Kassidy says as she approaches my table.
I’m at John’s shin, nearing the knee. “What time is it?”
I straighten up, only now feeling the tension in my back. Over five hours have slipped away since lunch and I barely noticed. How did that happen?
I look down at my son’s leg, the tufts of hair and the toenails in need of clipping. His toes wiggle and I jump back.
“It’s okay,” Kassidy says. “His body will move from time to time.”
I don’t want to think that it’s spooky, but I do.
I pass the over-eager volunteer on my way out. She’s still hunched over her Puzzle.
“Are you coming?” I ask.
“Nope. I appealed and got permission. Double shifts.” Her cheeks are flushed. She wipes a little sweat from her brow.
“Is that a good idea?”
She looks up, and I don’t like the gleam in her eyes. “She’s really coming together.”
“Maybe you and I could get a bite to eat?” I ask. “Take a little break? My treat.”
She mumbles an answer I can’t hear, but I know the answer’s no.
I look past her and see Kassidy and a security guard staring at us. I wish the volunteer a good night.
I pass a playing field on the drive home. I’ve passed it before, but this time I stop. There are still a few hours until my shows.
The other leg comes together. The process is getting easier. I feel like I understand what the pieces look like now. I glance at an anatomy chart from time to time. I’ve clipped it from a book and keep it folded in my pocket. It helps. Derek says he’s never thought to do that.
He invited me to his son’s next t-ball game after I mentioned that John played when he was little. I think I’ll go. It’s on a Saturday. I’m not allowed weekend shifts, only Monday through Friday. It’ll eat up some time.
John liked soccer best, Leon’s game. I brought snacks and cheered, drove extra players when necessary. Leon coached and did drills. I used to love watching them on the field together. Leon hung up his coaching hat and became a fan when John reached high school. I was always a fan.
I fuse a part of John’s thigh. That’s when the screaming starts. It’s the new volunteer. She’s attached the last piece of the mouth and her Puzzle is screaming. The wail is high pitched, loud, intimate. I’ve heard that sound before—John when he was first born, but this is an adult woman.
The volunteer is screaming too. Her face is red, her mouth wide open, her hair damp with sweat. The two scream at one another, letting loose a pain the rest of us don’t understand.
I rush through the aisles. Derek does the same, but we are too far away. Other volunteers reach them first. One hugs the Puzzle, pulls her gently to him and coos in her ear. Two others surround the over-eager volunteer, patting her back and telling her to take deep breaths. She’s choking on her own tears, coughing and sputtering.
I stop. I don’t want to add to the madness.
The Puzzle stops crying first. She pulls away from the volunteer’s embrace, looks around, trying to recognize the world again.
The over-eager volunteer can’t stop. She’s sweating and crying and her nose won’t stop leaking. I’ve been there. When Leon died. Lost to the world, swept away by mourning. They lead her away.
I go back to John. A little while later, a new table of pieces is wheeled in. The over-eager volunteer.
My son is half together. I start today on his torso. I feel tired and achy after my shifts, but good. Accomplished. He’s becoming whole.
Good memories have been flooding back. I remember us on vacation, swimming in Cayuga Lake, John trying to impress me with how long he could hold his breath. I counted for him and always added an extra ten seconds. I helped John build forts in our living room, taught him to drive, watched the horror films with him his father couldn’t stomach. I wasn’t a bad mother, not completely.
Derek’s nearly finished with his wife. He’s half done with her head. Her one eye follows him as he works. I watch her for a moment, giving my back a break. She looks at him lovingly, with a tenderness I used to see in Leon, a look I saw in John as a boy, before Leon died, before he learned he couldn’t count on love.
I fuse a piece of John’s belly, and at first I think I’ve made a mistake. The silver line appears, but so does the start of a thick, white scar. Did I do this? But no, it looks like it’s healed. I fuse another piece and another, ignoring the organs to focus on the skin. The line grows long and jagged up his torso, stopping just before his sternum. I run my finger over his scar. It looks intentional. What’s happened to my boy?
Something tears inside me, a hole in me to match the one in my son, one I never knew about. My legs are too light to hold me, the air too thick to breathe. The world grows dark around the edges. My son lies on the table, armless and headless, scarred and broken.
I slip to the ground. I need to catch my breath. Maybe the air is thinner down here.
I hear Derek calling. I peek around the table and see Grace, sitting up, her one eye wide, looking at me. She pushes Derek toward me. She has no mouth, no tongue to speak.
Derek sits beside me on the floor. He rubs my back. It’s the first time someone’s touched me since Kassidy patted my shoulder the first day.
I feel the tears start to pull me away. I cannot lose myself right now. John needs me.
“What’s happened?” Derek asks.
“His st-st-stomach,” I stammer out.
Derek rises and stays standing for a moment. When he sits back down, he puts his arm around my shoulders and I lean into him and cry. I can’t help it.
“It looks bad,” Derek says. “But it’s healed. Whatever happened, he’s okay.”
I don’t say anything. I can’t. John’s alive, but in pieces. He was in the hospital and didn’t call me. He needed looking after, but not by me. Never by me. The tears come and they overtake me, just like when Leon died. I hold on to Derek and cry, for John, for the years I spent alone and in silence, for Leon, for how I behaved after he died. I functioned, but I wasn’t there. I didn’t comfort John, didn’t let him know his one living parent still loved him and would take care of him. I retreated back into myself. I went to work, bought groceries, made dinners, did chores, but barely spoke. I left John all alone. He was 16. It took me years to find my way back. By then, it was too late. John didn’t trust me anymore, didn’t know if I would be there for him or not, so he chose to remove me from his life so I couldn't disappoint him again.
After a while, my tears stop and Derek helps me to my feet. John needs me.
“I wasn’t there,” I finally say, when I can get the words out.
“You’re here now,” Derek says.
It isn’t much, but it’s what I cling to. I hate to think of John in pain, stabbed or in an accident. But my son is a Puzzle, and I have to piece him together so he can live his life, whether that life includes me or not.
John’s right arm is almost easy to put together. The muscle and sinew just make sense to me somehow. The hand is harder, but doable. When I fuse the tip of his pinky, the last piece of his right arm, I stare at it. His feet were often hidden, something I hadn’t seen in years. But those hands. I know those hands.
I am nearly done. I have one more arm and his head to do and then John will come back to the world. I take a moment, stretch my neck and my back.
John reaches for me.
I stand still as the hand moves, his arm stretching, his fingers dancing in the air trying to find me. I take his hand. His grip is firm, desperate. I rub his shoulder and whisper, though he has no ears to hear me, “It’s okay. Mommy’s here. I’m right here, John.”
He squeezes my hand.
I can’t bear to leave. Kassidy says I have to go. They’re being extra careful after the over-eager volunteer fell apart.
John’s hand grabs for me when I let him go.
I run across the street to the drugstore. I buy John a stuffed teddy bear to hold in the night, so he doesn’t feel alone. So he knows I’m not abandoning him.
I beg Kassidy to let me give it to him. She tries to stop me from reentering The Great Hall but the night-shift volunteers give her grief until she relents. I thank them and hurry in. “I’m coming back,” I tell him. “John. I’m coming back.” But I have to go, leaving him behind, clutching the teddy bear.
I work one-handed for the next few days, putting the rest of John together, never letting go of his hand.
Soon, it’s time for the head. Kassidy asks me if I want to give this over to a specialist. I don’t hesitate. “No.”
His chin is easy, the back of his skull, the brains, the bones, the teeth. Easy. Those parts mean little to me–they could belong to almost anyone.
I was right about the hair. It isn’t hard to figure out. His skull is complete. I do his sinuses and his nose. I kiss his nose like I did when he was a little boy. It twitches in response.
The easy part of is over. I put together his forehead and his cheeks, his ears. I tell him again and again that I love him and he’s safe. I’m here for him.
I put his eyes together. He looks so frightened. “It’s okay,” I say. “You’re okay now,” as if he were just a boy with an owie and I could make it better with a kiss. Mommy magic.
Then the tongue. And the lips. I fuse the very last piece, the corner of his mouth.
His eyes squeeze shut, and his mouth opens wide.
John wails. My heart breaks as my son’s cry fills the room, drowning out the fusion of the other Puzzles. He weeps and wails and cries. A newborn man, fully grown, entering a world that nearly destroyed him once.
I hold him in my arms, the only shelter I can provide. I rock my son and tell him it’s okay, it’s going to be okay. I don’t know if that’s true, but I say it anyway because I’m his mother and I want to protect him. The silver lines of his body tremble as he cries in my arms.