Short Story: Puzzle Pieces

This summer I took a creative writing course to get my final humanities credit towards my BA in Social Work. This is one of the pieces that I wrote. I really hope that you enjoy it, & if you do then let me know what it was that you enjoyed!

Puzzle Pieces

My heart is pounding so hard that I can’t tell if the mess on the floor is from the shattered plates or if my ribcage has splintered against the pressure from my pulse. I can’t even tell if the house is quiet or if the roar of the blood in my ears drowns everything else out. Spots float in front of me and fall away like dust. I blink hard and begin to pick up the big pieces of either glass or bone in front of me. When I flip them into the garbage bin I see yellow flowers linked by blue accents. I guess my ribs haven’t broken.

The rest of the kitchen isn’t dramatically different from the tiny scene in front of me. One chair is thrown across the room, blocking the freezer and the table is shoved into the wall, pinning the rest of the chairs against the window. All of the utensils from the table gleam from the floor. There is food everywhere. Pieces of turkey from the deli are stuck in various states on the wall, cheese is smashed into the floor. Bread and lettuce are strewn throughout the silver wear on the floor. I finish with the big pieces of plate and stand up to find the broom.

I guess this isn’t the worse that the house as ever looked in the aftermath, but it’s definitely the worst that I’ve ever felt. I run my hand through my hair and rub the goose egg that’s starting to form on the back of my head. My other arm feels like I’ve been stung by a dozen bees. I roll up my sleeve and inspect the two sets of bite marks on my forearm and see that the skin is broken.


I sit back down on the floor and cradle my head in my hands. Tears involuntarily run down my face and hang on the end of my nose. I can’t remember the last time I felt like I had control over any real aspect of my life. My therapist says that in times like this positive self talk and meditation are key, but right now all I can think about is that for how much money I shell out every month, she’s a little too full of shit. I try it anyway.

After six or seven deep breaths through my nose and out through my mouth the tears stop, but it’s like putting a bandage on a wound caused by a machete. What’s it really going to do for me in the long run?

The phone rings, cutting my inner monologue and pity party short. I wipe my face on my sleeve and get up to answer it.

“Hello?” my voice is still shaky and I clear my throat.

“Mrs. Anderson?” a man’s voice inquires and I know what kind of conversation is coming.

“Yes, well Ms. Anderson,” I trail off.

The man hesitates. I can tell that he must be new at the hospital. “Mrs. Anderson, this is the River Bend Hospital and I’m calling about your son. Riley?” He pauses, but I don’t say anything. There’s nothing to say. He’s going to tell me that they’re going to transfer my son, thank me for taking listening and not meeting the police car at the hospital, and that it would probably be best if I don’t visit for a few days.

“Mrs.- er, Ms. Anderson, my name is Dr. Ryan and I’m the one that did the intake on Riley when the River Bend PD brought him in. I’m sure you know that he was in a significantly agitated state when he arrived…”

It’s not funny, but I can feel an inappropriate and hysterical laugh bubble up in my chest. I cough to force it back down. Significantly agitated. That is definitely the med school training coming through and it sounds way too formal. I want to scream Just say it, my kid is out of control! But I don’t and Dr. Ryan continues.

“Due to his history and the manner in which he came in I think it would be necessary to transfer him to the inpatient unit at the University of Minnesota Behavioral Health facility. I know that he’s been there before and we thought it best to send him somewhere familiar.”

There is an icicle forming in my chest and I can feel it spread outward, into my gut and down my legs. Somewhere familiar? I knew it was coming, but to hear that the behavioral unit at one of the biggest hospitals in the Twin Cities– the one the most severe go to, is familiar to my child, enough so to be considered the best placement for him, makes me feel like I’ve been pushed backwards into some lake in the middle of winter. Another feeling bubbles in my chest.

“Mrs. Anderson? Hello?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m sorry,” I stammer. “I’m sorry, I’m here.”

“I know it’s a lot of information to take in, but I have their number and the direct number to the on call doctor if you’d like it.” Dr. Ryan offers. “Riley is being transported there as we speak. We’re sending him by squad car. It seemed like that was the most effective way to keep everyone safe, including your son.”

I can feel tears well up in my eyes again. No matter how many times this happens, no matter how nice the doctor is, or the police officer is, or the nurse is, it still cuts me. My chest feels empty and it aches.
“No, I understand. If you could just give me the number of the on call that would be helpful.” I sit on the floor with a used envelope and pen. He gives me the number, I thank him, and we both hang up. Leaning my elbows on my knees, I stare at the piece of paper in my hand for a good minute or two before I call the doctor that is about to do an intake on my son.

The conversation goes exactly as I thought it would: We’re sorry that this situation has come up, No I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to visit until he can be stabilized, Yes we have all of the medications that he’ll need, I can’t say for sure until I see him.

It is the exact same conversation I’ve had with at least seven other doctors over the past year. Always with the same exhausted, underlying tone that wants to know why on earth I can’t control my child.


When Riley was born, it felt like the whole world had been cracked open. At the time I felt like it was opened in the way that allowed warm, sunshine to poor into all the dark nooks and crannies in order to drive out all the dust and gloom. For a while, it was. Everything about him amazed me, day in and day out. It never struck me with lightening bolts of panic when he failed to meet milestones at the designated times. I felt like when he wanted to do those things, he would do them. Looking back, I don’t know if I was more naïve or just in denial.

I know that a lot of parents of autistic children say that they sense something off balance right away, but I didn’t. I never felt that deep pang in my chest that let me know something was different about my child. It wasn’t until the official diagnosis was handed down that it hit me. It didn’t matter how much I loved my kiddo, he wasn’t just going to “come around” like I had thought he would. I still never felt like I was going to be swept away by the tides that many parents of autistic children are.

Early intervention, I thought. Applied Behavioral Analysis, I thought. Speech therapy. Occupational therapy. I can get him a service dog. So many options ran through my mind. Surely, surely, there was still a world of possibility for us out there. Wasn’t there?

We found a variety of therapists to work with Riley and they all had something different to offer. The weeks were scheduled between all of his different therapies that were supposed to help him. All experts in their field and the best that money could buy. Despite this, he never showed any interest in demonstrating whatever verbal skills he may have had. He never complied, never bought into the tasks, and became more and more volatile. The older Riley got, the longer he went without talking, the more frequent his outbursts became, the more I began to feel like I was being swept out to sea.

By the time he hit fifth grade he was becoming almost too big for me to handle when he would become aggressive. He would bite and hit, and the bigger he got the harder it was to hold him off until he could calm down, or put him into a hold. During the times he couldn’t get to me right away, he would grab whatever was closest and throw it. The TV, shoes, plates, anything. Eventually, I had no choice but to call the police.

I know that I am not the only parents to come to this point, but watching Riley leave in the back of the police cruiser for the first time took me to a depth of loneliness that knocked the wind out of me. There was such an enormous pressure that it was as though I couldn’t even lift my arms. The second and third time I knew I was beginning to drown. After that, I knew I couldn’t keep track anymore. It would have pushed me under. Maybe it did. I can’t remember the last time I came up for air.


The light is red and I drum my fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for the go ahead. I can’t tell if the lightness in my chest is relief or if I feel like I’m going to pass out. Maybe it’s a mixture of the two. I never know how to feel when we do this part.

I know that I should be ecstatic that Riley is coming home with me today. That he was discharged fairly quickly in comparison to his other hospitalizations, and that it went so smoothly. This doesn’t tell me anything, though. We’ve been here before, at this same stoplight, after the same discharge directions have been given, and the same nurses explained medication changes to me.

Lorazepam, Depakote, citalopram, fluvoxamine, Benadryl. Two in the morning, one at night, four at 2 PM, by mouth, with meals. Take three of one to combat the side effects of the others, and take one more to combat the side effects of that.

He sits next to me, rocking slightly and humming tunelessly, one finger closing off his left ear, his right hand flapping. I want to reach out, to hold his hand, but I know that I want it selfishly. Holding hands, hugs, ruffling of hair– that’s all for me and only me. If I reach out, if I break the quiet between us, it might send him spinning into oblivion. Actually, I know it will.

Cars behind me lay on their horns and my eyes snap forward. The light is no longer red and Riley starts humming louder, almost frantically, and his hand flaps with fervor. I step on the accelerator.

“Sorry,” I throw out, keeping my eyes straight ahead. I receive no response, but the humming dies to match the sound the engine of the car makes. Riley’s hand falls back into a moderate rhythm, and his finger almost comes away from his ear. He looks around like he’s tracking a mosquito, his head weaving to the same beat as his hand.

Calm. That’s how he looks to me. They say behavior is a language, and I used consider myself proficient in Riley. There was a time when no words even had to pass between us and things went smoothly. Now the absence of words almost chokes me. I don’t know what he’s thinking, I don’t know anything exact anymore. The best I can do is make a rough estimate and hope for the best. At first I felt like I was losing my grip on our connection, but I’ve come to realize that the change is coming from his end and not from the bond between us. Right now I think he looks calm, but I have no way of really knowing.

“I missed you, Riley. I’m really, really glad you’re coming home with me today.” I throw out a probe. Along with what’s left of my heart.

The nature of his humming and the movement of his hand remain stable. I wait a minute, observing out of my peripherals, and reach out to rub his shoulder.

He leans toward the window, his hand flapping as fast as the last night I saw him, and the humming takes on the quality of a scream trapped in his mouth.


By the time we pull into the driveway, his hand is doing a slow waltz again and his humming has a tranquil quality. The car is in park and the engine turned off, but I still have my seat belt on. Riley hums for a few more seconds and takes his finger off of his ear. He unbuckles and opens the door, stepping out of the car and shutting me in, alone.

I watch him. That sounds creepy, but when you’re a parent it’s different. I used to watch him when he was a baby and he was asleep. There was no humming or flapping then. There was just him, his sweet baby smell, and sleepy dust. I could have sat and watched him like that for the rest of my life, but babies grow up. I went from watching a dreamy baby, to a withdrawn toddler, to an unpredictable teenager. The naps turned into tantrums, and the tantrums gave way to full scale blow outs that left me unsure as the whether Riley was the same person I had watched asleep in his crib.

In between though, during the quiet times, I saw glimpses of my baby again. When he would jump, squeal, and clap in excitement when the neighbors used to bring to their dog over. Or the times something as simple as blowing bubbles would crack his face into a smile that seemed to big to be real. But it was.

Then it seemed that suddenly, there were no more smiles, or jumping and clapping. Nothing could draw out the same glow that I had seen so many times– the glow that made my heart stop because it was too full to give up another beat. The squeals didn’t ring the same, and when they came out they were accompanied by an attempt to bite and a grab for my hair.

Riley makes his way up the front steps and crosses the porch. His finger is back on his ear when he opens the door and I know that I can’t stay in the car forever. I want to get him from inside the house and drive until we find something that makes his smile come back and my heart full again. I want to drive until once again, he’s covered in sleepy dust and maybe I’ll be able to squeeze his shoulder without setting off a reaction from which we may never recover.


Everything is out of focus and all I can hear is a vague buzzing. My face feels like it’s melting. I want to stand up but my legs don’t seem to be connected anymore.

“Ms. Anderson? Ma’am?”

There’s a face to my left. I don’t know who the face belongs to. I can’t turn enough to face them.

“Ms. Anderson, I can’t even begin to understand how difficult this must be for you, but I really need you to talk to our social worker.”

My face is still hot, but the buzzing fades away.

“Ms. Anderson, the social worker?” The face is still there, but now it’s in focus.

“Yes, of course,” it comes out like I’m underwater. I can turn and face her completely now. She’s young and I’m sure she doesn’t have children of her own. Not yet, anyway. She must work evenings because she’s been here almost every time that I’ve had to come in. She’s one of the more decent RN’s, and for some reason the name Becky comes to mind.

Another face joins us and sits in the chair across from me. She thanks Becky and tells her that she can go before turning to face me.

“Hi, Mrs. Anderson, my name is Katie Johnson and I’m the social worker here for the Behavioral Health unit. Riley’s doctor thought it would be good if we introduced ourselves.”

I don’t even correct her to tell her that it’s Ms.Anderson, not Mrs. I don’t care. I am too tired to care.

“I can’t imagine what must be going through your mind right now, so I’ll try to keep this as easy as I can.” She offers a soft smile and all I can do is respond with “okay.”

“Mrs. Anderson, we as a team think, especially after getting to know your son, that it might be best to consider a more focused approach to treatment at this point.”

I stare at her. On some level I always knew that this was a possibility– that I might not be the best option for my son. But how could I not be? How could anyone possibly know him the way I do? Do they know all of his different hand motions, or what each type of humming means? How could they ever even remotely begin to understand him the way that I do? Know that the outbursts aren’t meant to hurt, but to convey the very core of his frustrations.

I know exactly what she means as soon as she says it, but my mouth has disconnected from my brain. “Riley already goes to several different types of therapy.”

“Yes, Mrs. Anderson, and we think that is wonderful. I think that just shows how responsible and intune you really are with the complex needs your son has, but at this point, he seems to need a little more.”

My throat gets tight and my eyes start to burn.

“Residential treatment and living does not mean you have failed as a parent. In some cases it’s an indicator of the contrary.”

My lips feel too fat to move and they tingle like I’ve been drinking. Part of me wishes that I was. The social worker reaches out and places her hand on top of mine. I know that it’s supposed to make me feel better, but I just want to crawl under my chair. I want to pull my hand out from under hers, but my arm won’t cooperate.

“Mrs. Anderson, the sometimes the hardest thing to do is realize that there are certain things you cannot always do for your child. You will always be the best mother for him, but right now Riley needs a research based, 24 hour care as well as a mother.”

Fat, hot tears start to roll down my cheeks. I don’t move to wipe them away. I can’t. I’m at the bottom of the ocean and there’s too much pressure. I can barely force air in and out of my lungs, how could I possibly lift up my hand to my face?

“You would be allowed to see him whenever you wanted and we have nothing but the best, most thoroughly trained staff of any facility I’ve ever seen. They genuinely care about the kids, Mrs. Anderson.” Silence falls between us and after a few minutes she pats my hand again.

“Please don’t feel like you have to give me an answer right away. Of course you’ll want to talk to Riley’s doctor and the rest of the team. I’ll let you have some time to think things over.” I can her heels clicking down the hallway long after I can no longer see her.

It’s been over a week since I’ve seen my kid. The blowout had come out of nowhere. There was no increase of his ticking. No escalated nature to his humming. No indicator. Or maybe I just completely missed it. We hadn’t even been home for more than two hours and he just went off. I couldn’t even identify any triggers. The TV hadn’t been on, we weren’t eating, and there was no real change to routine. Everything was exactly as it always is.

Except for Riley.

Riley was the only thing that seemed out of place.

And now, a week later, with only emails from his staff and phone calls from his doctor to tether him and I, it’s come down to what has always lingered as an awful possibility in the back of my mind. How can I send my child away, knowing that he won’t be coming home any time soon? What can these people offer that I can’t? I’m his mother for Christ’s sake. He needs me.

He needs me. The thought sinks to the bottom of my gut and sits, uneasy. Does he? Does he really need me? It wouldn’t seem so, if I’m being really honest with myself. For the first time I look at Riley and I from the outside. He doesn’t need me, not in the way that I want him to. Not in the way that I need him. He doesn’t need the hugs or the shoulder squeezes. He doesn’t need conversation as a confirmation of our bond. He doesn’t need the things that I need.

Riley needs behavior experts and someone that is trained to handle his blowouts. Someone that doesn’t cry in the bathroom when he rejects their attempts at connecting. Someone that can look at him objectively and create a plan to help him. I have to admit to myself that I am not that person.

I am not the person that can observe his behavior from an objective standpoint and pinpoint the reason why. I am not the person that can emotionally detach and deescalate. I am the person that can love unconditionally, visit everyday, and bring his favorite things from home.

I can love Riley, but I cannot help him. Not in the way that he needs.

I hear her before I see her. This time I reach up to wipe the tears from my face. When the social worker rounds the corner she smiles and this time she comes with a box of tissues. She offers me one.

“I just came back to see how you were holding up.” She sits in the chair next to me.

My throat is no longer tight and I turn to face her. “I don’t have to make any definitive decisions right now do I?”

“No, of course not.” She continues, “but if you’d like I can walk you through some of the details of the potential process and through the programs we offer. Really, whatever you need.”

Immense relief floods me, like the feeling of floating towards the surface when you’re about to run out of air. I am no longer running out of oxygen. I am no longer drowning.


2 thoughts on “Short Story: Puzzle Pieces

    • I have done very little reading but I have discovered that by reading a few books in the past 2 years that people have to have real good imaginations to write stories like this! Well done!

      Liked by 1 person

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