"Get the hell off me," Luke grits out between clenched teeth. His arms are pinned against his side by a walking nightmare, in the fifth stages of decomp.
Robert looks down at the front of his pants and then lifts his gaze to Luke's mouth and grins, making no attempt to move his torso away from his.
"Or what" he challenges, wrapping his bony hands around Luke's wrists. "you'll shoot me?"
Luke twists his head away from Robert's fetid breath, and eyes the glock sitting on the nightstand. He's had night terrors before, following the deaths of the Peach family and his father, but this was a doozy. This felt real. Too real. Hell, it smelled real enough. Like standing in the middle of a sewage plant in full power but he had to do something to get him off. He looked back at Robert's lopsided, hapharzardly sewn neck, from the corner of his eyes, and made himself play along.
"Yeah, okay. I'd love to shoot you...again. Just give me another chance, and I'll make sure you stay dead."
Robert's grin widens. He slowly rubs his thumbs against the inside of Luke's wrists and watches as Luke's breathing hitched with each stroke, then whispered in Luke's ear, "is that what you really want? To shoot me? Oh Mouse, you're such a good little maggot. Always playing by the book," and at that, Luke felt a sharp, sudden, stab of pain under his rib cage and was jolted awake.
Luke was jolted out of sleep in a cold sweat, puffing clouds of air in the middle of his backyard. He was lying on his side, facing a white picket fence, when he caught sight of it and froze. He stared in disbelief and felt himself shiver against the cold, at least, that's what he told himself; for next to where his head had been laying, was the outline of a mouse, drawn in the bare patch of his lawn.
Chapter 2: Sometimes They Come Back
Sometimes the devil you know, is better than the devil you don't.
July 15, 2019
"Sorry, Louise. I'll stop by tomorrow."
Louise Lispector huffed indignantly into the phone. "This is the third week in a row. You were suppose to pick up your dog a month ago. Not leave him here to terrorize my cat."
Luke smiled, envisioning the hairless sphynx cowering behind the stove, in a mad-dash to get away from his deaf, and playful terrier.
"The cat will be fine. Just take Max out for a walk, and feed him table scraps. He'll be as docile as a kitten.
"Seriously Luke," Louise sighed, "where have you been? You haven't called in days. Zoe and Izzy are worried about you," at that very moment, Luke heard a muffled crash on the other end of the phone, followed by a barely audible "ah shit."
Minutes passed before Louise returned to the phone, huffing as if she just ran a marathon.
"Er, are you okay," Luke asked, smiling into the phone.
"Yeah, I'm okay. The kid got her hands on one of my stuffed weasels and was trying to set it free. She thinks it's a ferret," Louise sighed heavily as if the weight of the world was on her shoulders. "The girl actually sat my latest project on the porch, screaming "now you're free, fly home."
At that, Luke started laughing.
"It's not funny, Luke. At least when you were here, she listened to me. Ah whatever, when are you coming back. Your brother keeps knocking on my door, asking about your father."
With mention of his brother, the smile that brightened his face, quickly turned into a frown. Luke furrowed his brow and stared out the passenger window. It'd been seven months since he last spoke to his brother, and the memory left him with a sour taste in his mouth. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably, and tried to block out his brother's accusatory stare, when he told him Dad retired, and moved to Barbados. But, the guilt weighed on him, heavily. He couldn't reconcile the images of his father slitting his throat in a freshly dug grave, and the father who once told him he loved him, when he confessed he was gay. The two were alien to one another, but they were both the same man. Chief Vanzcyk was his idol. His hero. The man who cleaned up the criminal system in Garrett county. He was his father. But he was also an accomplice to multiple kidnappings and murders. And, coming to terms with what he did, and the reality of who his father was, was a daily battle that left him trembling on his bathroom's cold tile floor, unable to move for whole minutes.
"Don't worry about my brother. I'll take care of him. Just babysit Max for a few more days, and I promise, I'll take you out to the best vegan restaurant, this side of the county. I gotta go, Louise. Talk to you later."
Luke heard Louise utter a string of epithets, some of which had to do with the backside of a certain female dog, before he turned off his phone. He'd spotted movement from the corner of his eye while talking to Louise but when he turned towards a row of trees, he found the space between the old, dilapidated playground and the surrounding forest, empty.
And yet, despite his growing apprehension, Luke kept returning to the playground where the Peach family line ended, as if pulled by an unseen force.
July 18, 2019
Luke parked under the same set of ferns, he spotted three days ago. But this time, the world around him stood still, as if the forest itself was holding it's breath. The trees and lakes were shrouded in mist, and the call of birds were absent. With doors locked and the headlights off, Luke Vanczyk sat beneath the wheel of his police cruiser, motionless. In the damp and heat of mid July, it was cooler beneath the ferns he parked under but the chill that pricked his spine had nothing to do with the night air.
Fingering the air freshener handing from his rear-view mirror, he watched the moon set on top of a cell phone tower, before spotting movement 100 yards away. He leaned into the dashboard, and stared at a hollow place that appeared in the darkness beyond the trees. At first, it resembled an oddly shaped, heavily shadowed stump. But, against the backdrop of the moon's light, it began to take form. And, when Luke blinked again, he saw the outline of a familiar figure, standing still among the ferns, shimmering and fading in and out of view. It took Luke only seconds to realize who was watching him, and when the shadowed figure finally stepped forward, Luke promptly passed out at the wheel.
"Wake up, sleepy head. You're sleepwalking again."
Luke slowly pushed himself up on his elbows, ignoring the sharp pain in his side. He felt hazy, as if he was awakened from a dream and for a second, he wondered what had happened. Then he remembered where he was and was startled to find himself in the middle of the playground. He sat straight up, his heart pounding in his chest. Breathing heavily, his eyes quickly darted towards his car and found the door on the driver's side, open. Scared and shaking, he stood up on legs that threatened to fold underneath him. Then he heard whistling, and his head whipped towards the direction of the voice.
"Hiya Mouse. Long time, no see. Missed me?"
Robert Peach sat motionless on a swing, watching Luke warily. His eyes traveled down the young officer's pulled-open, uniform shirt, the ripped name tag, and the barely-noticeable scar on Luke's brown neck, and was surprised by the violent reaction it inspired in him. It made him feel lost and confused, arousing an involuntary groan, and in an attempt to clear his mind, he swept his hand over his eyes and quickly cleared his throat. He met Luke's gaze and smiled, for long seconds, until Luke was forced to look away.
"It seems Garrett PD has gone downhill, since I've been gone. Are you still the leading rent-a-cop in your department?"
Ignoring the jab, Luke stared at Robert in disbelief, shaking his head. "You can't be here," Luke said in a choked voice. "You're dead. I buried you, myself." And, then, as if speaking to himself, he whispered, "am I going insane?"
In answer, the muscles in the other Robert's shoulders twitched. He watched the glazed look in Luke's eyes, temporarily twist from shock to disgust, and responded in kind, giving him a wryly amused smile.
"I heal, Mr. Mouse Man. Remember? All the kings horsemen and all the kings men, were able to put me back together again," he sang cheerily. "Although, I'll admit," Robert added, "re-attaching my head was a bit tricky. Had the damndest time getting the angle right."
Luke noted the thick scar tissue wrapped around Robert's neck, and gave him a hard stare. "What do you want from me," Luke demanded, and after taking stock of the outfit Robert wore, Luke added "and why do you look like you just came off a GQ magazine?"
Robert looked down at the white dress shirt, bomber jacket and pair of jeans he wore to this impromptu meeting and shrugged. He hadn't exactly planned on revisiting the old, burial ground but something he couldn't name, kept calling him back. He looked up in surprise. Of all the questions he expected, the way he dressed was not one of them.
"What? What does that have to do with anything," Robert asked, noticing the way Luke was fingering his holster belt. He quickly looked up to meet Luke's gaze and was startled to find the officer ready to take lethal action. Remembering the last time Robert underestimated him, he slowly raised his hands to his head and was slightly impressed to find himself trembling.
"I don't want any trouble."
Luke eyed him suspiciously. "That's not the question I asked."
"I know," Robert answered. His eyes softly traced the dip in Luke's neck, and his mouth curved into a sweet smile. "I'm not ready to answer, my sweet Mouse. And, you're not ready to listen. So I'll just give you the short end of it. A wrong needs to be corrected, and I was sent back to make it happen."
"Sent back by who," Luke demanded, and as soon as he uttered those words, the mist that surrounded the park, suddenly thickened and swarmed around Luke and Robert. The temperature dipped, and he felt a cold breeze ripple around him, as plumes of air expelled from his lips. Luke was suddenly terrified but of what, he couldn't name. He looked back at Robert, and saw him mirroring his reaction, with lips that had turned blue in the sudden onslaught of cold air.
Trembling with fear, and warily watching the mist swirl and ebb around them, Luke uttered a single word, "Robert?"
And, when Luke turned around, Robert was gone.