Excerpt: The Starkpine Sessions, Day 20

Day 20

Thursday 27 June, 2019



Dr. Peter Churchill, Psych Department, Global Security Task Force

Assigned therapist of GSTF Agent Bennett Emerson O’Brien, Arcto Unit Third, callsign Arcto Phillips


“I haven’t been sleeping,” Ben says as soon as he steps through the door.

“Good morning to you, too,” Pete returns. “I can see that.”

Ben looks shattered. He’s not as bad as he was when he first left Starkpine but, Pete’s worried to note, he’s well on his way back there.

His eyes are bloodshot with deep shadows smeared under them, blinking slow and exaggerated. It speaks volumes about the effort he’s making to stay upright and focused. The mane of tousled brown hair hangs loose to his slumped shoulders. Old jeans. Worn t-shirt. Agency hoodie, too, for the first time in ten days.

Steady hands, thankfully. That gives Pete a measure to go by. It takes more than a couple of nights’ missed sleep to make Ben’s hands shake.

He was fine on Tuesday, if a tad obsessive about whatever Nakagama is purportedly hiding from him. That was only two days ago. He’s gone downhill fast.

Which leaves Pete with a couple of burning questions.

One: what’s got Ben so riled up he literally can’t sleep?

Two: why the hang haven’t his team stepped in before now, either to shove some sleeping pills down his throat or to alert Pete, as Ben’s therapist, to the situation?

Okay, so maybe he’s got three questions after all.

Three: how is he going to fix this?

It does need fixing, he has no doubts on that score, and the sooner the better. Ben can’t keep going the way he’s going. Not this soon after Starkpine. And not when a mere two days between sessions has left him like — well. This.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Pete asks.

Ben sinks into an armchair and stares at him blankly.

Okay. There’s no point offering Ben coffee, he hates the stuff. “How are your hydration levels? Can I get you some water? Tea? Juice? I’ve probably got some Milo somewhere…”

“Tea,” says Ben. “Double strength, dash of milk, four sugars.” And after a long moment, as an afterthought, “Thanks.”

Pete makes the tea and shoves the mug into his hand, waiting until Ben’s fingers tighten on the ceramic before letting go. Still staring at nothing, Ben lifts the cup to his mouth and drinks. The movement looks like pure reflex; Pete doubts he’s tasting the tea. Good thing it had milk in it, otherwise he’d be burning his taste buds off right about… now.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Pete asks again once the mug lowers.

Ben blinks. Focuses on Pete, blue eyes dark with exhaustion. “Dunno.”

“I’m sure you can think of something. Nightmares, memories, overdoing the caffeine before bedtime…?”

Blink. Blink. “Nightmares. Yeah.”

Okay. That’s something they can work with. “Can you think of anything that might have set them off?”

“Life?” Ben offers, mouth twisting at the corner in a way that’s only half-amused.

“Anything in the last week or so?”

He shrugs and shakes his head. Drinks again from the steaming mug.

“How often have they been happening?”

Pause. “Every night. Since… I don’t know. Monday. Or Tuesday. When did we…”

“Your last session with me was on Tuesday.”


The last thing Ben needs now is another barrier, even a visual one, between him and help. Pete moves his chair out from behind the desk and clasps his hands together. “Today is Thursday. You’ve been home from Starkpine nearly three weeks.”

“Right,” Ben says again. “Uh. Monday, then. I think.” He doesn’t sound at all certain.

He didn’t mention nightmares in his Tuesday session. Pete lets it go. “And you’re having the nightmares… once a night? More than that?”

“Whenever I sleep.”

“Could you put a number on it?”

“No.” He frowns. “Woke up at ten to seven this morning. My alarm was set for seven o’clock. It was only ten minutes, I thought I’d be okay… but I fell asleep again. Dreamed. Woke up when my alarm went off. I didn’t think it was even possibly to dream in the space of ten minutes.”

It’s certainly unusual. Not unheard of, though. “Do you remember what your dreams are about?”

A spasm of horror passes across Ben’s face. “Yes.”

“Do you want to tell me?”

“Are you sure you want to know?”

“You don’t have to,” Pete says. “If you’d rather not, that’s fine. But I’m here if you do want to share. If it’ll help.”

Ben opens his mouth. Closes it again. Looks away from Pete to the far wall of the office.

The silence hangs.

“Sometimes Ellie dies,” he says quietly. “They take her away. Nick finds me locked away downstairs, weeks — years — later. I don’t recognise him. I don’t recognise myself by then. Or she dies and they stick me in the cell with her — ” He stops, looking sick. Forces out the words though gritted teeth. “With her body. Again, we’re there for weeks. By the end of it, there’s nothing left. Nothing but her bones.”

“It’s okay,” Pete murmurs, even though it’s really not. Under the professional mask, his gut tightens in sympathy and nausea. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”

“Sometimes Nick never finds us. We’re never extracted. We both live like that... animals in cages, eating when we’re allowed to eat, wasting away… for I don’t know how long. It feels like decades when I’m there. We tell them hundreds of different stories about Nick. They never stop. They never let us go and they never kill us.”

“You’re here. You’re at HQ, okay. You’re safe now.”

Ben nods. “I know.” 

“You’ve tried taking sleeping pills?” His medical records are right here in his file, but Pete would rather hear it first-hand.

“Yeah.” Ben blows out a breath. “All they mean is I can’t wake up. I’m working on new ones that might work better — got some guys at the lab helping me with that — but it’s slow going. And the last time I tried experimental ones… didn’t end well.”

“How so?”

“It’s like swimming in the sea, and I’m caught in a rip that’s dragging me further out. I’ve got no energy left. That’s a normal sleep.”

“Okay, and with the pills?”

“With the pills, there’s a giant hand on my head holding me underwater. It’s still and silent and terrifying. You know that moment in a dream when you realise it’s a dream, and the next second you wake up?”

Pete makes a soft noise of acknowledgement.

“I get those moments. But I can’t wake up. Sometimes it’s only a few minutes, sometimes it feels like hours. Or days. It’s a dream, it’s not real and I know it’s not real. But I can’t wake up.”

“Lucid dreaming?”

“No. I don’t have any control.”

“Even after you realise you’re dreaming?”

Ben nods, eyes haunted. “Especially after I realise I’m dreaming. That’s not all of them,” he adds. “There are more. Like the ones where I’m naked the whole time, where it’s freezing cold from the moment they stick me in the truck and I get a nice case of hypothermia. I wake up from those and pile on sixteen layers and I still can’t get warm. Or the ones where they spin me barefoot on frozen mud, around and around and around until I throw up, and then they shove me down and make me — ” He stops. Swallows heavily. “Or the ones where Ellie tells me what she’s been hiding.”

Bingo. So that’s it. “She hasn’t told you yet?”


“Have you asked?”

Ben tilts his hand side-to-side. “She sidesteps it. Dodges the question, changes the subject. Or tells me an answer, but not the answer.”

“How do you know?”

“Here.” He taps his knuckles to his breastbone. “I know Ellie. I know when she’s not telling me the truth.”

Pete watches him for a minute, weighing the shadow-smeared eyes and air of utter exhaustion, and picks his next words carefully. “You’ve said before that Nakagama would lie to you if she decided it was in your best interest.”

“She would.”

“If she thought that telling you the truth would hurt you irrevocably.”


“Maybe that’s what she’s doing, then. Protecting you.”

“Maybe.” Ben shrugs unhappily. “But whatever it is she’s hiding… it can’t be worse than what I’m seeing in my nightmares.” He looks away, eyes glinting.

Pete doesn’t need to be a genius to read him. He’s not masking at all; he’s too worn down for that. Deep fear lurks in that shadowed blue gaze. A palpable sense of shame lingers in the slumped shoulders. Anger sits heavy in the line of his jaw.

He can’t go on like this.

“I’m bumping our sessions up,” Pete says, and scribbles a quick note. “You’re back to daily appointments until this is sorted.”

“What?” Ben protests. “No!”

“It’s not negotiable, O’Brien.”

“Matthews dropped Ellie back to three days — ”

“It’s not a competition.”

“ — but you’re dragging me in here every day? Again?”

“I am,” he says bluntly.

“But we were past that!”

“We were. And now we’re not. Not while you’re like this. Have you seen yourself in a mirror lately? Look.” Pete softens his tone. “Progress isn’t linear. Not for anyone. We don’t move forward at the same steady rate, and we certainly don’t keep pace with everyone around us. It’s often a case of two steps forward, one back – and sometimes sideways, if it comes to that. It’s normal and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“But Ellie — ”

“It’s not a competition,” he says again. “Do I need to make you write it out a hundred times until you know it off by heart?”

Ben mutters something under his breath that sounds like I’d like to see you try.

“Daily sessions. You will turn up for them, are we clear? You’re not a probationary agent anymore, I shouldn’t have to chase you up. It’s for your own good, you know that.”

“Don’t,” Ben blurts. Stark panic flashes through his eyes.

More than that, it’s the full-body flinch before Ben’s eyes slam shut that tells Pete he’s accidentally tripped a signal.

He keeps his hands lax and still. Body language open. Voice even. “What is it?”

“Don’t — don’t tell me what I know. Don’t tell me it’s for my own good. It’s too close — ” Ben stops, jaw tight. Digs his fingers into the rough denim of his jeans. When his breathing settles, he goes on. “It’s too close to what they said. When they wanted to push harder. To persuade me that it was the best course of action – to give Nick up.”

“Okay,” Pete says. “I’m sorry. I won’t say that again. I’m not them, O’Brien. I’m not Crimson Jackal and you’re not in Starkpine. You’re home and safe.”

“I know.” Ben doesn’t open his eyes. His voice is tight with tension.

“Can you tell me where you are?”

“HQ. Your office. Pete Churchill. Bennett Emerson O’Brien. Counselling sessions after that — ” He swears, short and sharp. Opens clear eyes. “I know where I am. And who I am.”

“Just checking,” says Pete. “Now…”

He makes it a long session; more than double their usual one-hour slot. He’s got nothing on the schedule until twelve o’clock. Ben clearly needs the space. They don’t solve all his problems in one go — they never do — but they make a decent amount of progress, even if Pete does say so himself.

When Ben is gone, door clicking shut behind him after promising with rolled eyes to be on time tomorrow, Pete sits back in his chair and rubs a hand over his face. Blows out a breath. And reaches for his phone.

“Madison? Pete Churchill here. Yeah. Yeah, it’s those two. How did you guess, mate? Listen, we need to talk…”

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