Into the Pines by P D Dawson

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Mr Harper rested his index finger to his temple as he listened to his client talking about his daily routine. Sebastian had been coming to therapy for three weeks, but Harper knew he hadn't yet got to the heart of his client's problem.

'Listen, these sessions are not cheap,' Harper said while straightening himself in his chair, 'and I like to make sure I give my clients good value for money, but so far all you've told me is how you live your life. What I want to get to is the reason you can't live it the way you want to.'

'I know I've been skirting the issue, haven't I?' Sebastian replied, crouching slightly to a fetal position and gently rocking. 'I don't know what I was thinking really, as I know my story can't be told.'

'All stories can be told, Sebastian, though I grant you, not all can be believed. You have to remember, I'm not here to judge you, I'm here to guide you, and unless you open up, I can't help you.'

Harper's study was cosy with a fake fireplace; giving the impression, they were sitting in a log cabin in the woods when in reality they were in the basement of a building in Baton Rouge. 'No judgement, you say?'

'None at all, Sebastian.'

'Well, I guess that was my hope all along, to tell someone about the unspeakable madness that has plagued me since my early life. I've been stalling because I didn't want you to think of me as mad, but I suppose that's silly really.'

'That's not silly at all. Everyone worries about opening up, but just tell me what it is that brought you here in the first place?'

'Well, there's something that happened to me when I was younger. My parents were both arguing, as usual, on our way home from a holiday. It was dark, and we were travelling down a country road in Louisiana, not too far from home. Holidays were particularly bad with my parents, as they were in each other’s' space more than they liked. I told them I had to pee and that I couldn't wait until we got home. They stopped arguing long enough to listen. My father brought the car to a halt, and then they resumed their argument while I got out. I was an only child, and so carried the weight of my parent's unhappiness alone. The weight felt so heavy that night that it pushed me deep into the woods, and I wondered how long it would be before they'd noticed I had gone for an exorbitantly long whizz.'

Sebastian froze up as if something, in particular, about his story had disturbed him. 'Go on, Sebastian, remember, there's no judgement here.' Harper was intrigued to know more. Most of his patients' stories were trivial to everyone but themselves, but Sebastian seemed to hold a tale of some reverence.

'I thought it was my rebellion and the hatred I felt towards my parents that pushed me into the pines, but now I'm not so sure. I just kept walking and walking, occasionally looking up at the trees and seeing the stars shimmering above. I don't know whether it was the contrast between the darkness at the tops of the trees, but the stars looked particularly lucid and bright that night. I almost felt naked to them, as if I could have reached up and touched them somehow or that they could have touched me. The woods at night is a scary place for anyone, especially for an eleven-year-old kid, but I just kept walking. I felt a kind of satisfaction in knowing that my parents would have something else to think about other than their hatred for each other. Soon I was sure I'd hear them calling out for me, with anxious tremors in their voice, but they never did. What happened, was very different, and very much the source of all the fears I still carry to this day.'

'You can tell me,' Harper begged, feeling Sebastian was losing his nerve again, 'was there some man in the woods, someone that did something bad to you?'

'No, God, nothing like that! What happened was nothing as earthly as all that.'

'I'm sorry for jumping to conclusions; please do continue.'

'Well, even though my parents didn't come after me that night, for reasons I would find out later, I wasn't exactly alone. As I walked through the trees, feeling the soggy earthiness beneath my feet, I could also feel a static charge building up on everything around me. I wondered if there was a storm on the way, but it was the clearest night I can ever remember. I did see flashes shooting across the sky in the darkness, but I assumed it was just shooting stars. What was real was when I reached out and put my hand around the trunk of one of the pine trees. I saw an electrical spark fire into my hands, and it is around this time that my memory becomes a little hazy as to what happened. But what I do remember is a figure standing in the darkness. There was a clearing among the trees, and I could see a swamp and this figure was standing next to it as if it was waiting for me.'

'So, there was a man?'

'No, it wasn't the figure of a man. This figure was very tall, with long limbs and it appeared to have a halo around its outline as if it wasn't of this earth, or not grounded in our reality. My first instinct was to run back to my parents, but my feet had become stuck. All I could do was tremble as this dark figure walked towards me and took my hand. It then proceeded to drag me towards the swamp, which by this time was aglow and seemed to vibrate with ultraviolet light. When I got a chance to look at the figure, I noticed its face was a featureless hollow void of darkness, and as it entered the swamp with me, it morphed into something else, something alien to me, but I can't remember what exactly. All I remember is breathing in the swamp as if it were a thick goo, and thinking to myself, so this is how it all ends. The next thing I remember is waking up in the woods with a sore head and seeing the sun high in the sky beating down on me. My parents had called for the sheriff's help in finding me, but apparently, I had been missing for two days without a trace. To me, it had felt like only seconds had passed between entering the swamp and waking up.'

'I cast no judgement, Sebastian, but I need you to confront reality if you are to get better. What you are explaining to me here is a manifestation of your fears. You were a young boy who feared his parents were going to break up, and so yes; I'm sure you entered the woods in rebellion, but then to deal with that challenging time you have since concocted a fantastical story to supersede your real feelings. Perhaps you fell and hit your head, that would explain your time loss as well as your visions.'

'No,' Sebastian shouted, standing up. 'They took me from the woods that night. They pulled me into the swamp. I remember the coldness seeping into me, and then I felt like I was falling backwards and my body became light. They took me against my will, they poked needles into me, AND THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED TO ME. I SWEAR.'

'Sebastian, think about what you're saying. I can help you find the real truth of that night, I can, but I can't let you continue with this false memory. It's this memory that is keeping you from moving on with your life.'

Sebastian sat down again and then pulled back his sleeve. He leant over and showed his arm to Harper. Harper wrapped his hand around Sebastian's arm and rubbed his thumb over a mark on his skin that looked like a barcode. 'Is this a tattoo?' He asked.

'No, it's not a tattoo. I've had this ever since that night. A few days ago, I booked in to have it removed, hoping that this would help rid me of my fear.'

'So, what happened, did you bottle it?'

'No, I had it removed, but when I woke up the next day it was back. Even the scars from its removal have gone, see?'

'Impossible!'

'No, it's true, though I can understand your hesitance in believing me.'

'I'm sure you can, but if you don't let me help you, then I suggest we end our session right here. I shall refund you for half of this session, and then I want you to see a psychiatrist as your delusions suggest you need more than just therapy.'

'No, that won't be necessary.'

'Why not? You need help!'

'The aliens got all they needed from me years ago, but when the barcode on my arm came back, I knew they wouldn't leave me alone until I had fulfilled a promise I had made to them on that night in the woods. I have dreamt of nothing else but that promise, every single night for years. They gave me back because they needed me to bring them someone else. Not everyone is influenced to go walking into the woods at night on their own, so they need a little help from their previous subjects.'

'I don't follow you; what are you saying? I do think you need that psychiatrist, and soon. I think you need to be subscribed some medication, for my therapy is limited for those who accept their reality, but need help in understanding it. Your problem is that you cannot seem to separate your dreams from your reality.'

'No, you see, in my first two sessions with you, I was genuinely hoping you could make me better, perhaps even without telling you the truth of that night. But that's impossible. I realise that now. There's only one way you can help me. I've struggled with my conscience, but I'm sure you're the right man for the job. Your ability to debunk the fantastical stories that people tell you will put you in good stead to handle this.'

Harper tried to get to his feet, but Sebastian pushed him back into his chair before pushing a needle into his arm. Harper struggled as the contents of the syringe was emptied into his veins, and the warm light of the room fell to darkness.

Harper awoke, feeling like he was coming out of a heavy night of drinking. His brain felt like it was pushing against his skull, and his sight was blurry. Sensing a presence beside him, he spoke. 'Where am I?'

'All you need to know is that you're in a Louisiana wood, but soon you'll be someplace else.'

Harper instantly recognised Sebastian's voice, and he reached for the car door handle, but he couldn't reach as his wrists were tied together with old rope that was cutting into his sore skin. 'Please let me go. I can get you some help. I promise I can.'

'The only way you can help me is if I let them have you, I know that now.' Sebastian replied. 

He had run down the window and was blowing smoke out into the darkness of the Louisiana night. 'It's about twenty years too late, but that won't matter, after all, time doesn't mean the same to them.'

Sebastian almost smoked his cigarette down to the filter, but before it lost its burn, he pushed the tip into the back of Harper's hand. 'Shit, why did you do that?' Harper screamed out in pain.

'I need you lucid for them. You have to be awake when you go through.'

'Go through what?'

'You'll see.'

Sebastian dragged Harper along through the woods. He had dreamt this already, his dreams portending to this very night and the promise forced upon him. The earth was bouncy, the air was cold, and the trees were dense until they came to a clearing. There in the clearing was a swamp. They both saw the thick fog that hung over it like a cloud, but something else was happening too. There was an unexplainable light shining up from its surface, and as Harper recalled the accuracy of Sebastian's tall tales of abduction, it all made sense to him. 'If all that you said is true, then don't do this. I'll help you find someone else instead. We'll look for someone together, someone that deserves it more than me.'

'No, Mr Harper, you're here now, and I can't wait any longer, it has to be tonight, they told me so in a dream. The portal is only open at certain times according to some celestial imbalance that they rely on.'

With that said, a tall, dark figure appeared beside the swamp and Sebastian, knowing Harper could no longer move, let go of him and retreated a little way into the woods where he could watch from a safe vantage point. The alien figure approached Harper and grabbed him by the hand. 'Please no, I believe now, I believe, but don't take me.' Harper yelled. 'I'm a shitty person and an even shittier therapist. You don't want me! My bones are weak and brittle. I'm a poor human subject, you'll see.'

Sebastian turned around as he didn't want to witness Harper's pathetic begging. As he walked away he heard his therapist gurgling through the goo as he was taken down into its spacious confines, a gurgling sound, of which his own had played out like an echo throughout his life. An echo that confirmed the reality most people knew; was only a slither of what was really out there.

Back in his car, he took a cigarette, the last from his pack, and lit it. His hand was trembling at the thought of what he had just done, but he knew it was better they took Harper, better that than taking his wife or one of his children. As he drove away, down through the narrow muddy roads that led back to safety, he felt a tingling on his arm, and a light feeling came over his whole body. He pulled over for a second and turned on the interior light inside the car. The barcode had gone from his arm without a trace, telling him his hanging guilt would be worth it, for they had finally let go of his life, and he hoped, of his dreams too.