Heath’s talent for capturing themes shines in This Pain Inside. She’s been vocal on her own website about her struggles with chronic illness, and I think this story in particular deals with the struggle of the daily grind of dealing with pain. I found myself relating, not necessarily because I deal with chronic pain, but as a mother to two disabled kids, I often face the exhaustion and uncertainty that comes with chronic suffering. Often, we tend to overlook those who suffer, as if their pain will somehow rub off on us and infect us. I wonder what would happen if instead of running from what we don’t understand, we try to step into the shoes of someone suffering for just a short period of time? I think the world would change. I honestly do.
This Pain Inside tackles this theme head on, and it’s done in a fascinating way. It’s part post-apocalyptic, part underwater fantasy. The story focuses on Charlie, a girl who lives in the sea with the rest of humanity to escape the Poison. There is a bunker of sorts, where they research ways to combat the Poison and make abovewater livable again. In this story, there is a magical force called the Ne, which communicates with the Neons (the human race in this story) through some subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
The prose, in typical Heath style, is fantastic. Her descriptions are beautiful. For example, to illustrate what it feels like for Charlie to always be in pain: “Some days – most days – she had this mental image of carefully pulling her spine from her back. She would pick shards of glass from between her vertebrae and rinse the hot pain away with cool, clean water. Then she’d put her spine back and go on with her life. All of her pain would be gone.”
Her characters are developed well, considering it’s a short story. Charlie is unique in that she loves heavy metal music (one song plays into the story quite often), and her voice is strong. She feels too weak and powerless to be of any use to combat the Poison because of her health, and struggles to walk the line between civility and outright moodiness. I mean, who wouldn’t, if it felt like their spine was filled with glass? You really get the sense of who Charlie is, and I found I could relate to her.
The world-building is also done well, given the word count limit. The context is fleshed-out, the Ne (although a bit confusing) is unique, and I loved the idea of people being forced to live underwater to survive.
To end, this short story is well worth your time. One thing that stood out above it all: pain isn’t the end of the story for those who suffers. There is hope even in suffering. Exhibit A: Charlie has an interaction with the Ne that changes her. She runs (for various reasons, I won’t ruin it) and encounters this all-powerful existence that reminds her of who she is.
“Charlie floated, and she breathed. Breathed long and deep, inhaling the warmth and the neon until her body filled with laughter and stars and blood and darkness. It flooded her, ripping her apart and mending her all at once… Was she…dead? No. Pain meant she was alive.”