Warning: this story contains references to sexual assault and trauma. Read at your own discretion.
Nothingness. Inescapable, eternal nothingness. To be enveloped in it was to lose herself, to lose all hope of ever being one again. Water lapped against skin the same temperature, and every touch was agony. Pitch black combined with white noise to conduct a horrible symphony, hitting its crescendo of terror again and again. The last ounce of awareness left, fading out of reach. Not that she could have reached for it if she’d had the will. Floating weights kept her limbs in intolerable stasis just under the surface, swallowed by the water but unable to thrash and connect.
Everything was lost. Was she even a woman, a person, alive? Her name, if she had ever even known it, was lost to the water and the dark. Somehow she had become separated from her body, a floating consciousness in the blackness. Even that fragile part of her was disappearing, each lap of too-tepid water against the skin of a body she did not own biting chunks of her away.
Soon, she thought. Soon I will be nothing.
And she was glad for it.
“Stacy?” the professor drawled, pulling her from her thoughts. “Are you listening?”
She nodded, and the professor said something she didn’t hear before turning back to the projector to continue with his lecture. It had been a month since she first entered this building, since she began her first class ever at university. Things were not working out the way she’d hoped they would.
She refrained from looking left, where she knew it sat in the corner. Little more than an oscillating mass of blackness, she was the only one who seemed to see it. Sometimes she saw tentacles and wings in its shadows, claws reaching out to try and caress her as she strode past. Other times it looked almost like people she knew, had they been crafted from shadows and ruin. Those were the times she hated.
She couldn’t stop coming to class. This one was important, and despite the fact that she’d barely absorbed any information for the past week, she had to show up. Any interruption of her studies would disappoint her parents, who were nearly breaking themselves to pay for her schooling. No, she had to be here. The thing, it seemed, had to be here too. He, it… seemed to watch her. She knew no one would believe her if she told them about what lurked in that corner, so she kept her mouth shut.
Something like an impish grin appeared in the mass, and a cold shudder ran down her spine as she lowered her face. So it was going to be one of those days.
“Class dismissed,” said the professor. She slowly packed her things into the backpack she wore, keeping watch of it from the corner of her eye. Though its gaze lingered on her, it disappeared after a while, just as it had every day. She wanted to sag with relief, but instead rose calmly, striding out of the classroom with false contentedness. Only once had she run into it outside this class. She made sure to never take that path again.
The path she now took home was longer, more crowded. Since she was sure it would be waiting at her usual shortcut, where she’d run into it before, she dealt with the crowds. Keeping her eyes on her feet, she counted her steps. One, two, three, four. It was exactly 543 steps to the inside foyer of her apartment, where she could finally be sure she wasn’t pursued by it. Just 543 steps to safety. Just two more days until she would find herself counting those steps again.
The memory hit her like a slap, propelling her back into her pruny body. For a few moments she felt the luke-warm kiss of water on her skin, the unnervingly steady breathing apparatus forcing air in and out of her uncooperative lungs.
She didn’t want this, didn’t want to experience feeling this body. Each soft touch of the water stung like a burn, and her whole body ached from the strain of trying to move. At least the pain was something. She would rather break every bone in her body than be stuck in that purgatory between feeling and nothingness.
She searched for her voice, for anything to call for help. She felt like she was screaming already, but she couldn’t hear. She wanted any reliable sense back, she would take taste for god’s sake. God…
Just like that, one thought of the intangible launched her back into the black. No body, no mind, no sense of self. Her name, which she had known mere seconds ago, was again a prisoner of the void. She had been thinking about… about something. A deity, maybe. Somehow, here in the blankness which was both her and not her, she shrank away from the all-powerful. Maybe she was a god, or maybe the gods had forsaken her.
A thread of memory pulsed in her, and she gritted her teeth to hold on to it. Not her own memory, but a story. The story was about a man condemned to push a boulder up a mountainside forever. When he reached the top, his overlord shoved it back down, forcing him to repeat the process every day for all of eternity. What was his name again?
A few days before it showed up in her classroom, she had gone to a party. It was her first college party, so naturally she’d spent hours getting ready.
She and her roommates had decided to go together, piling into the Uber like the petals of a flower, joined together by a sepal of loosely concealed caution. The fraternity wasn’t far, but all of them still held that secret, shared fear instilled by years of lectures from their mothers: young girls weren’t safe at night on campus, not even in groups. Dark alleys and streets hid men in stained wife-beaters with whisky on their breath. They loomed in the group’s imagination, starving beasts with teeth so long they scraped the pavement, lying in wait of girls who aren’t careful enough. Terrified of demonstrating any weakness, the girls expressed their fear in a language only they could speak. Lipstick-shaped mace, keys held between fingers, an unspoken pact to never go to the bathroom alone; they wore their tokens and rituals of self-defense like wards against evil.
Despite this fear, gleeful giggles filled the car as the pre-drinking buzz set in. All of them were freshmen, and this was the first real taste of adulthood they would be allowed to savour. Stacy was the only girl who was still 17, but it hadn’t stopped her from indulging in the same capacity as her new friends. After all, this was college, and her birthday was in a few months anyway.
That was how they’d walked into the party, all hair and lipstick and half-drunk exclamations. Music echoed from somewhere deep within the house, and strings of lights lit up the walls in a yellow that looked as warm as they felt. Everyone had always said this would be the best time of their lives, and through the drunken haze Stacy could finally see why. This night, these people. It was going to be like this forever. It was like all of her favourite movies from the 80’s had come together in one colourful, pulsing fantasy, and she finally got to be Molly Ringwald.
She locked eyes with a boy across the room as she filled her cup with beer from a cheap keg, and he walked towards her in slow motion. Her pulse quickened in her ears while she waited for him to reach her, eyeing him up and down as he did the same to her. Cute, she thought. Several other boys clapped him on the back as he passed them, and the symbols on his shirt alerted her that he was a member of the fraternity. She bit her lip. At 17, all she wanted in the world was to do well in school — and get a boyfriend in a fraternity.
He flashed her a smile as he reached her. “Hey,” he said. “I’m—”
She fought and thrashed. She didn’t want it, didn’t want to be in the skin that held that memory. The harsh rise and fall of her chest strained against the gentle pulse of the water like a caged animal. The pitch black around her seemed to undulate, threatening to take her once again. She was glad, almost giddy at the idea of being lost to the terrible void, but it receded again.
A sob escaped her, not that she could hear it. Everything here was white noise. To know your body had done something was to completely trust your muscle memory, and she didn’t.
She tried to forget. Tried and failed. The boy, the party. She was adrift in this nothingness specifically to forget that, and yet it was the one thing that kept her anchored. She couldn’t remember her own name, but somehow she remembered how uncomfortable her shoes were, how vile that warm keg of beer had tasted.
She begged her bleak surroundings for relief, begged them to take her to that detached state of existence she craved. She wanted to be cleansed of her memories, of this memory. She prayed for it, though she knew she hadn’t believed in God that night. She pleaded with the darkness for any reprieve, any tiny modicum of relief from her own memories. It never came.
Drunk. That was what she was. Everything was blurry and spinning. She’d never felt this way in her drinking experiments during high school, though. It was all she could do to cling to that boy’s arm — what was his name again? She didn’t just feel different, she felt wrong. She had the sick feeling of being on autopilot, not in control of her own legs as she watched them step, one in front of the other. Up a set of stairs they marched, into a room with soft shag carpet. Little more than a marionette, she felt her body sit on the edge of a bed of its own volition. She tried to scream that her limbs had stopped working, but found her mouth utterly useless, producing a garbled string of not-quite-words instead of what she willed it to say.
Panic struck her as that same boy knelt before her, unbuckling her shoes. His sandy hair fell in front of his eyes while he took them off, looking for neither confirmation nor protest from her. He was saying something, but she couldn’t hear him through the blood pounding in her ears.
She couldn’t scream, she couldn’t even speak. Even blinking was an effort, and she found herself unable to open her heavy eyelids again after she did. She felt her body being jostled, maybe laid down. She was encased in unbearable darkness, unable to see what was happening, but feeling everything. Her leaden limbs and lips could not muster a gesture of protest, but every brush of fabric or fingers against her skin was too much.
She mustered up all of her strength to crack open her eyelids, even if only a sliver. Her gut turned to ice, cold bile rising up in her throat as terror took hold. The boy had become something so different, so horrifying. His sandy blonde hair morphed into tentacles and teeth, his skin no more than a void. He was a monster, and she was frozen in her own body. If only she could speak —
She wanted to scream. This was the memory she wanted to forget, needed to forget, but she never could. It was so similar to now, the cloying darkness and inability to move. Every lap of the lukewarm water became fingers, hooks, claws. She fruitlessly tried to find her own hands in the void to try and pry herself open to get away.
Unbearable. The word pulsed through her head, over and over until it lost all meaning. Unbearable, unbearable, unbearable, unbearable. She could not get ahold of herself, could not remember anything other than this void and that party. The phantom claws, which were his fingers and the water all at once, pawed every inch of her. No one could go through this and make it out, no one.
She curled up and faced directly into the searing-hot shower water. Not hot enough, she decided, reaching a red arm through the stream to turn it higher.
Getting home had been a triumph of will. She couldn’t even stand in the shower, but somehow she had walked the entire 20-minute distance at four in the morning. When she had finally regained control of her limbs, the amalgamation of swirling darkness and claws sleeping soundly beside her, she’d quietly dressed and left the house. Some people were still awake downstairs, more seasoned drinkers than she, but she barely noticed them. She’d left her shoes on the shag carpet beside the bed, the image of greedy fingers undoing the clasps more than she could bear.
Her movements were no longer physically restricted the way they had been, but the swirling tempest of real, raw fear still festered inside her, immobilizing her all the same. Her maneuvering was purely mechanical, each step an act of survival rather than a firm choice. She was outwardly calm, almost eerily so, but it was all she could do to keep from falling to her knees and never standing up again. What had happened… what had happened was too much. Too much for one person to handle. She felt like a cloth doll, each step ripping her seams open to reveal she’d been stuffed too full.
She was on her way home instead of somewhere built for dealing with these matters, not because she didn’t trust them, but because of that fullness. She had a feeling that if she walked up the steps of a public office right now she would unravel, spilling her stuffing onto the pavement. So she kept walking, one foot in front of the other, until she found herself in the bathroom, staring into her reflection at a girl she didn’t recognize. Her hand still held her apartment key between trembling fingers, white-knuckled in fear of losing this final talisman of protection. She couldn’t force her hand to let it go, so she took it with her into the shower.
She remembered. This memory was less difficult than the other one, and even though each break of the tepid water against her skin had her clawing to get out of her body, she let herself see the end of this story.
After weeks of gentle urging from her roommates, who had peeled her from the shower floor and gotten her into bed that night, she had indeed gone to a place where they knew what to do about her situation—but not a clinic. When the slightest kiss of an autumn breeze was enough to send her reeling, she couldn’t bear the thought of even the most clinical touch.
The atmosphere in the psychologist’s office was calm, cool. The fabric of her couch was so velvety-smooth that it didn’t feel like claws, didn’t feel like fingers. In jolting breaths and over many sessions, the victim told her story, and in that release she became a survivor. Or so the woman with the notebook said. She watched the monster in her class slowly morph back into a boy, and worked to overcome her inexplicable guilt. In her sessions she often asked why it was so hard to accept your own innocence.
“Sometimes,” the psychologist mused, “you will feel like the victim again. It’s okay to have days where you are more victim than survivor, but you will need to be ready for them. You can’t always outrun your memories.” She tapped her pen against her lips. “Have you ever heard of sensory deprivation tank therapy?”
She stepped out of the tank. Not she, Stacy. Stacy stepped out of the tank, reaching for the towel in the waiting hand of Dr. Taylor. She took her time drying off, pushing down the revolting feeling of the rough cloth against her skin.
“How do you feel?” asked the psychologist. Her eyes seemed to be scanning Stacy’s face for anything, any sign that she was about to bolt.
“I think I—” Stacy started. “I think I feel okay.” The woman gave her an approving glance above her glasses as she wrote in that notebook of hers. “It never gets any easier,” she added.
A sympathetic smile tugged at the corners of Dr. Taylor’s mouth. “You’re right. It never gets any easier,” she said sadly. She lifted her chin to look Stacy directly in the eyes. “But we do get stronger.”
Stacy met her unwavering gaze with trembling determination. We do get stronger. She said it in her head over and over again like a prayer: we do get stronger, we do get stronger, we do get stronger, we do get stronger.
She let the memory of the sensory deprivation tank wash over her, and for once she didn’t think of the water as greedy hands, his hands. For once, it was just water.
We do get stronger.