Author's note: While it isn't presented in graphic detail, it is worth noting that this story deals with sexual abuse/assault and the emotional, social, and physical impacts it can have on someone's life.
John Villefort’s had always known this day would come. It was always something lurking behind every romantic gesture and intimate moment, waiting to reveal itself. It was like the Sword of Damocles propped above him, waiting for the slightest change to send everything collapsing around him. If he could free himself of it, he would, but it wasn’t that easy. Just like two decades ago, the start of John’s life unraveling began with a small, innocuous action; a simple touch.
It was their two-year anniversary since they started dating and Jeanne Duddington wanted to start the day off right. She was unaware that John’s gift a few feet away in the freezer. She called his name in the kitchen just as she was getting ready to head off to work. He turned around and she knew this was her moment for a rare spontaneous show of affection. She caught Johnny off guard by reaching up and cupping his face in her hands and saying, “I love you.” She had meant it as an affirmation of her love, but her fingertips moving along his skin felt like nails raking along his cheeks to him that tore up feelings and emotions he’d tried to keep buried. She went to kiss him, but he pulled away as if he had been bitten by a snake.
The argument that followed was something that had been building for months, but this moment of hesitation was the final straw. Jeanne vented about how this hesitance towards physical intimacy was impacting her. She felt like she was an afterthought in their relationship, like he wanted to be dating someone but didn’t want to actually be with her. She felt unloved. Johnny knew he loved her, but he was also aware there was something in the way. He couldn’t love her the way she wanted to be loved. She wanted to be smothered in affection and wrapped tight in physical affirmation. The thought of it turned his stomach. He didn’t say anything, instead, he lost himself to a recollection.
He shuddered as the memories he kept dammed away came flooding back. They swept over him and swallowed him up. In that moment, in the kitchen, he was a terrified child again. She was supposed to be watching him over the weekend while his parents went to a funeral out of state. His grandfather had died suddenly from an ischemic stroke brought on by a thrown clot. Johnny’s parents decided he wasn’t old enough to deal with the concept of death so they had him stay with a friend while they attended the funeral and settled his affairs. They would explain it to him later. He was too young to understand. Her 'affections' started off small, a quick pat on the head, a reassuring hand on the shoulder, a lingering hug, a peck on the cheeks.
Later he felt like he should have known what was happening. He couldn’t have. He was a child and innocent to his predator’s intentions. By the time he realized something was wrong, it was too late. She kissed the nape of his neck and ran her fingers along his back before they traveled downwards along his hips and towards his belt buckle. He tried to ignore her and continue watching the movie, hoping she would get tired and leave him alone. He knew he should have stopped her, maybe things would have been different if he did? People in traumatic positions have been known to freeze up. This was not his fault, but he erroneously saw himself as a guilty party. She took his lack of reaction as permission to keep going.
She asked him, “Does it feel good?” He felt terrified and disgusted. He didn’t know what was happening, he wouldn’t fully understand for years. He wanted to push her off, he wanted to tell her to stop, he wanted to run, but he couldn’t. He was paralyzed in that moment. She pressed down on him and cupped his face in her hands before giving him one last kiss. Her breath was stale and sour. He started crying. She didn’t like that. She snapped, “Why are you crying? You should be thanking me! I did you a favor!”
He kept crying. Time seemed to drag on interminably as he spent the rest of the weekend with his abuser. The next day was spent staring dull-eyed at gifts and numbly listening to explanations of the ‘game’ they had played, promises to keep this a secret between them, and threats when he didn’t answer her. He was numb to it, to everything. Johnny’s parents picked him up the next day and they went home, but he left a part of himself behind with her and he and never reclaimed it.
Jeanne mercifully snapped him back to reality. She had realized that he wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying anymore. He had been staring off in the distance as if there was something just beyond her. She spat, “Are you even listening? Jesus, Johnny, I wish I knew what was going on with you.” That was enough for her. She left and slammed the door behind her, leaving John behind in the wreckage.
He thought wistfully, “It’s over.” She had never said that, but he knew the end when he saw it. He had seen that same face three times now. She didn’t know what her boyfriend was going through. He never told anyone. At first, he was terrified of getting in trouble. That feeling was then buried away under a delusional denial that nothing had happened with his mom’s friend. That feeling faded away towards the end of high school and was replaced with a warped sense of shame about everything that had happened at that point and time in his life. Over the years that wound became scarred and calloused, buried away, festering beneath the surface.
His parents noticed the change but attributed it to grief. He had just lost his grandfather to a genetic predisposition that had insidious roots in his family tree. They were close. His parents mistook his trauma for sadness. They misread the random fights in school, the sullen attitude, and frequent arguments for grief. They tried to help him heal and recover, but they didn’t know the true cause. They never would.
John spent the rest of the day getting drunk. He usually managed to keep his drinking under control (He had had a serious dependency on it in the past, but now he managed to get by with only slight lapses once in a blue moon), but today he felt like he had a reason. He gave himself over to his shame. He had something he wanted to drown in whiskey. An hour and half a bottle of Bulleit whiskey later he stumbled back to the kitchen and opened the freezer. He pulled out the wrapped box and regarded it dully. It was his gift to Jeanne.
He slowly tore the paper away and opened the box. He observed the heart-shaped cake and felt a pang of regret. She was always the adventurous one. She chased opportunities and experiences. It was while she was watching a documentary about psychotropic drugs on Vice that John made up his mind. She had always wanted to try edibles with him and this anniversary they would. He thought it would bring them closer.
He felt something twist deep inside him and he tried to ignore it. He knew what that feeling was, and he didn’t want to experience it again. He had remembered his skin crawling, the tightness in his chest, his stomach caught in his throat, tears slowly tracing their way down his cheeks. In his drunken haze, John Villefort made the worst mistake of his life. He devoured the entire THC confectionery in his desperate bid to feel something else. He wanted to numb himself to everything; bury it all under a flush of dopamine. He wanted to lock away those memories.
He carried his laptop to the bedroom and laid in bed. He set the laptop to play music and closed his eyes. He focused on the music and waited for the pleasant sensation to obliterate the disquiet in his mind. The laptop began cycling through all the songs in his playlist. His mind drifted to Jeanne and he felt a brief flare of guilt. She was the closest he’d gotten to normalcy and he had ruined it just like he always seemed to do.
After about an hour of laying back, he felt the edibles kick in. It started as a tingling sensation in his core that quickly spread to the rest of his body. As that receded, it was replaced by a pleasant, warm feeling. He closed his eyes and let the music wash over him. He felt the beats pulse through his skin and despite knowing the chord progression, he was unable to follow the rhythm. He drifted in and out in pleasant reverie as he tried to distance himself from everything that happened earlier in the day and embrace the moment. Hours passed with him lying in a motionless trance listening to the music weaving throughout his body.
It wasn’t until he tried to get up from the bed to go to the bathroom after hours of laying stone still that he realized something was wrong. The edibles had had more of an impact on him than he had previously thought. It took considerable focus to work his limbs to get into a sitting position. It felt like everything was underwater and he had to struggle to make everything move correctly. It wasn’t until he tried to stand up that he realized the extent of his condition.
The room twisted around him, and he wasn’t sure if it was the half a bottle of whiskey sloshing in his stomach or an effect of the edibles, but suddenly he felt very dizzy and disoriented. He managed a step away from the bed, but quickly realized his mistake when he lurched forward and nearly fell into a nearby dresser. His coordination was suddenly off. Everything felt disassociated from his body. He pushed off of the dresser and stumbled backwards onto the covers. He laid back and told himself that he only needed a couple of minutes and he would be good to go. He didn’t realize as soon as he laid back down that this bed was going to be his prison for the next two days.
As he laid in bed, listening to “Comfortably Numb”, he became aware of a disconcerting sensation. It started in the tips of his toes and slowly spread up his body. He told himself that it was another aspect of the high that he wasn’t previously aware of, but its combination with his sudden lack of coordination planted an uncomfortable thought in his head. What if something was wrong? He tried to ignore the sensation, but the feeling of numbness continued to spread up his body.
It took a few minutes, but eventually all feeling faded from his feet. He experimentally tried to will his brain to wiggle his toes, but he couldn’t synchronize his body to perform two tasks at the same time. He told himself that it was another phase of the edibles and it would eventually pass. All he needed to do was wait it out and everything would work out. If he ignored the problem long enough, he’d metabolize the substance and the high would wear off. It didn’t abate, instead, it slowly crept up his body.
John didn’t become fully aware of his condition until he realized how much saliva was in his mouth. It had built up over time. He tried to swallow and was horrified to realize how much effort it now took to organize a typically unconscious activity. Everything suddenly felt like a Herculean task. Blinking, swallowing, even the act of breathing now required his full attention to perform. He tried to roll out of bed but found himself unable to move. That seedling of concern about his situation blossomed and now he knew. Something was definitely wrong with him.
He had to get help. He needed a hospital. He weakly called out, “H-help…” As far as last spoken words went, they were unfortunately far too common. The cry fell on deaf ears as John succumbed to the paralysis. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t scream. He could only wait and observe the situation deteriorate around him.
He tried to sleep in the vain hope that this was still a bad trip which only had to be outlasted, but sleep wouldn’t take him. Hours of sleeplessness dragged on at a torturous pace. Once it became clear that rest was no longer an option, John’s mind clawed out and tried to latch onto any hope he could find. He thought, “I’m missing work. Maybe they’ll check in on me?”
As soon as that hopeful thought was birthed, it died a quick death. He had worked at the office long enough to know what happened to people who skipped out. Nothing. They’d get a call to human resources where they’d get a slight admonishment. His office rarely fired people. He always assumed it was a point of laziness on their part. They didn’t want to bother hiring a new person and re-training them, so they issued warnings that typically never became anything. They didn’t care if he skipped a day and they weren’t going to check on him.
As John laid in bed, he became aware of a familiar scent. The pungent odor of ammonia wafted to his nostrils. He numbly noted that he hadn’t wet the bed since high school. Memories of slipping downstairs with his sheets clutched tightly in his arms played through his mind and distracted him from the horrifying realization. It was a common enough occurrence for him back then. He didn’t even realize when he had urinated. He was losing complete control of his body.
Seconds became minutes as John listened to Alice in Chains belt out “Down in a Hole”. With no other bodily autonomy and nothing else to focus on, the music almost sounded deafening. He allowed himself a brief moment of respite. He imagined the neighbors getting tired of the music and calling the landlord who would get the police involved who would save him from his current predicament. He imagined the landlord letting them in after knocking a few times. He pretended for a moment that he could actually hear the sound of them knocking. He deluded himself with the feeling them pulling him out of this urine-soaked bed and loading him onto a stretcher.
That fantasy died moments later. He was alone. No one was coming to rescue him. He was trapped in his own body.
Minutes became hours. The laptop had run out of power by now and John was left in silence. He imagined what songs would still be playing if the playlist was still going. It wasn’t really all that engaging, but it did manage to distract him as he tried to organize the music in his head by artists and then by song titles. This tactic eventually failed as he tried to run-through all the artists in chronological order from when he first heard them to the last time. As he tried to ignore the situation at hand, John slowly shifted focus to more wistful topics.
He was going to tell Jeanne. He had meant to tell her so long ago. Every milestone in their relationship became a reminder that he had to share his trauma with her; the first time they said that they loved each other, moving in together, planning a life. Each moment weighed more and more on him. Every moment of shared intimacy made that dark event grow larger in his mind. He would set deadlines where he told himself he would tell her. Those moments passed by. He didn’t want to ruin their relationship. He knew that he shouldn’t feel this way and that she wouldn’t respond that way, but the only reference he had was a painful one.
He had been dating her for months in his freshman year in college while he was studying medicine before he changed majors. This was a few years before Jeanne, but the event was so raw in his memory that it felt like it had only happened days ago. He lied and pretended that he had everything under control, that his horrific experience was behind him and in the past. He told himself the trauma of the past had scarred over and was calloused, it comforted him knowing that those nerves were damaged and dead to the world. It was like fibrous tissue. It couldn’t hurt him anymore. Still John loved her and felt like she should know. He told her a few weeks before graduation. He glossed over how it made him feel and he rushed through the events for fear of crying. She listened and responded:
“Is that something you’re proud of?”
She didn’t understand. She thought he was bragging about his experience. John’s proud flesh tore open and wept. In that one painful moment, John realized as everything ripped open that his trauma was more like a granulated wound than scarred tissue. It was a fragile thing, easy to wound, even easier to re-open. Even to this day, he couldn’t manage saying her name without feeling anger. She became the excuse for why opening yourself up was a bad idea. He wanted to tell Jeanne, but he was so terrified of exposing that old wound. He knew that all it took was one mistake and he'd open himself up again
Hours seemed to stretch on like days. John blinked and was horrified by how much focus and energy it took to even do that. One by one his bodily functions were being stripped away from him. His eyes felt dry, but it took so much energy to close his eyelids and open them again. Every time he managed to will himself to close his eyes and open them again, it felt like a Herculean task that he would never be able to accomplish again.
Blink. Hours passed. Slowly. He was alone. He had always been.
John looked up and down. That was about all that was left to him now. Everything else had been stolen away. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t control his bladder, he could barely blink now. He flicked his eyes up and down, desperate to find some way to free himself from this torment. He kept looking up and down. A small part of him hoped he’d see something new, an even smaller part of him knew that he was terrified of losing even that small bit of control he had.
Time lost all meaning.
Remember to breathe. He expanded his chest and used the negative pressure in his bronchoalveoli to draw air into his lungs. He desperately tried to feel the air working its way down his trachea and into his chest, but he couldn’t. He had to remember how it felt. He blew the air out and drew it back in again. It was exhausting, but he had to keep going. If he stopped now, he would die. Keep forcing yourself to breathe, keep existing.
The mantra repeated endlessly: Don’t stop. Breathe in, breathe out. Look up and down. Blink. Swallow saliva. He didn’t know how much longer he could continue. Keep going. Inspire, respire. Flick your eyes horizontally and vertically. Close your eyes and open them again. Every movement was a Sisyphean task, but he struggled on. Keep fighting. Draw in a breath and blow it out. Move your eyes. Keep forcing yourself to blink. If you stop, you’ll die. Cracks started to form and deepen. He would break eventually. Expand your chest and contract it…
One Day Later
Jeanne couldn’t fight it anymore. She had gone to stay with her friend to cool down, but she needed to see John. Despite the ups and downs of their relationships, she still loved him. She needed to try and patch everything back together. He was worth it. Despite how frustrating it was living with him, she still loved him. Nothing would change that. No matter how distant he was, Jeanne still loved him. The door to their apartment creaked open and the tragedy revealed itself to her.
The freezer was open. A half-empty bottle of Bulleit Whiskey rested on the counter. Water from melted ice pooled on the floor and soaked into her socks as she stepped into the puddle of warm fluid. She closed the door and was getting ready to shout at John, but the smell assaulting her senses interrupted her before she could start. Voided bowels and repeatedly emptied bladders hit her like a punch to the face. Something was terribly wrong here.
She found Johnny in the bed he collapsed in over a day earlier. At first, she thought he was dead due to the smell and his lack of movement, but the subtle rising and falling of his chest revealed that he was still alive. She pressed her hand on his chest and felt warmth. He was still alive, but something was terribly wrong. Looking over his paralyzed form, all rational thought was blasted from her mind. She knew she should call an ambulance, but she was terrified that the instant she turned away, Johnny would pass away. He wasn’t answering her, he wasn’t moving, he was barely breathing. She cupped his face in her hands and pressed her forehead to his. It couldn’t end like this. She loved him. She would be here for him. She would by his side for the rest of her life if she had to. She loved him.
John’s Worst Nightmare
John wanted to turn away from Jeanne’s touch, but he couldn’t move. Her hands were clamped onto his cheeks and her eyes bore down upon him. It was an all-too familiar sensation. Her touch triggered that horrific memory from his childhood, the sour taste in his mouth, the cloying perfume that was suffocating, the skin-crawling feeling of her touch, but he couldn’t wrench himself away this time. He couldn’t tell her to stop. She continued tracing her fingers along his face while trying to get him to respond. He wanted to scream, but he had no voice. Jeanne love him, she wouldn’t leave him. Johnny loved her, but he couldn’t escape. Johnny wordlessly screamed as Jeanne sought to comfort him.