This Place Is Not for My Pain

Alyssa Pearl Fusek


Mom gives me a copy of House of Leaves for my seventeenth birthday, and I know I should be grateful that she’s trying more since Dad left, but no, I don’t want a book about a house with labyrinths. I want the minotaur itself splashed unbound on my bedroom walls in abysmal charcoal strokes. Reading about it isn’t going to bring it to life. Doesn’t she know anything?

I take the book, but I don’t hide my distrust soon enough; the shine in her eyes dies, and she turns away. “Get going, or you’ll miss the bus.” I almost ask her, Don’t you know me at all?

Henry does, thankfully. He doesn’t get me anything for my birthday, but he distracts me with Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions on the ride to school, our skulls bumping together whenever the bus hits a pothole. When he’s in English class and I’m in Calculus, we keep the thread between us taut, fluorescent-thin, unbreakable. He wants a minotaur just like I do, something to haunt and hunt beyond this town. No one who wants too much to leave ever does, and if they do try, they inevitably find themselves six months or so later waitressing at The Fog Den like Mom or hauling crab cages out of the bay like Henry’s older brother. You speak your wish aloud, and it never comes true. So Henry and I, we keep our need hidden, adopt glazed expressions whenever anyone at school is fool enough to say I’m gonna get out and see the world. 

In winter, when the trees are stark shadows against pastel sunsets, we filter inland to the lake and watch the birds bending and weaving as one in their murmuration. The word alone echoes. Murmuration. They’re starlings, according to Henry, bending and weaving a ribboned song in the sky. I love watching the birds, but I don’t love watching Henry. He feels too raw sitting next to me, whittled down to something the cold wind could blow away. His yearning to leave is a whirlpool that gapes through his eyes when the rest of his face is closed off to me. Something about the birds hurries the currents of his need. It’s the opposite for me: I want to be as still as possible, breathing long and slow, only my eyes moving with the birds.

Today I need to say something, anything. “Thank you for being here with me.” Henry just nods and squeezes my hand. I think it’s the truth. I hope it is.

Henry doesn’t show up to school the next day. Sick with the flu, he texts. I’m on edge all four days he’s gone. Mom and I, our jagged moods antagonize each other, constricting our breathing whenever we’re in the same room. I think about reading House of Leaves but decide instead to try and draw the minotaur on the wall by my bed. I grip the charcoal I stole from the art teacher’s room and sketch an outline. It looks wrong even as it leaves me. The charcoal snaps in half when I try to draw a face. I can’t do it without Henry. The dissonance from his need spreads, threatening my own. I worry at a hangnail and forget to worry when blood wells up. I wipe the blood on the wall, but then just as quickly scrub it away with my sleeve.

When Henry invites me to a bonfire party three days into winter break, I say yes, desperate, tugging on my end of our thread, hoping it’s not fraying. The party is at the lake, which unnerves me. I thought this place was ours, immune from the town. Empty beer cans glare at me from the shore. I can’t remember if they’ve always been there, or if my eyes glided over them like the birds gliding through the air. Sarah from Calculus waves me over and hands me a beer. Henry’s restless, eyes darting from person to person. He takes my hand and I have hope again.

One of the seniors crushes her beer can under her heel, wet sand grating against aluminum. “Screw it. I’m leaving this hellhole next year. I’m not getting stuck here like all you guys.”

I see how Henry watches her. I see the moment he breaks. I want to say, Henry, no. I want to say, Don’t do this to me. I want to say, Do you take her here to see the birds, too?

His chapped lips part. “I’m gonna get out, too. See the world, make it big in the city. I won’t get anywhere staying in this town.”

Severance is a white starburst of pain under my sternum. The senior — Kelly Winters, that’s her name — gazes at Henry with sudden white-hot need. I stumble and drop my beer. Laughter echoes and bounces off my ears. “Hey, what’s up with her? Why is she crying?” Henry’s darkness gapes, but doesn’t threaten to pull me in. An entirely different murmuration creates poetry in my head now.

I don’t remember leaving, but suddenly home blurs to life before me, chipped white paint wobbling in the dusk. Mom’s burning something on the grill in the backyard. The heat is a splash of thick paint on my face, drying my tears. I stare at the curling pages of House of Leaves and can’t even kindle a question.

“I’m tired of trying,” Mom says. She smells of soap and charcoal. “I’m so tired. You gotta give me something.” She shakes her head. “It’s that boy, isn’t it? It always is. But it doesn’t have to be. You know it doesn’t. The things he puts in your head don’t have to belong to you.”

When I look at her, I see what I’ll be if I stay: shoulders forever hunched against salt air and rude customers, crevices deepening in my skin, dead dreams hiding in the whites of my eyes. No, not dead, just idolized in secret. I can do that. Mom’s gone it alone all this time, long before Dad became an absence.

I swallow hard around the bruise in my throat. “I’ll try now, Mom. There’s no boy anymore.”

The shine comes back, small, but there.

Mom did a thorough job scrubbing the minotaur out of existence. She’s made it easy for me to transpose my pain onto the slate gray canvas. No charcoal, no blood. Only imaginary strokes from now on. Mom’s right. Forget Borges. Forget Henry. I’ll get out of this town, but no one can know when or how or why, not even Mom.

I pull the covers over my head. I see myself crouch in a nameless, black space demarcated by a dull thread. I see myself take the other end of the thread and pull, pull. I see myself tie the two ends together, inviolate.



Alyssa Pearl Fusek (she/her) grew up in the small mountain community of Cobb, California. She graduated in 2015 from Willamette University with a B.A. in Japanese Studies. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and her work has appeared in Ghost Parachute, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and The Helix Magazine. Haunt her on Twitter @apearlwrites.