Although this book is not particularly explicit, there are a few scenes with frank depictions of sexuality. There is also some graphic violence and depictions of sexual assault. Lastly, the book discusses grief and mourning after the loss of a loved one, and because of this, a few scenes may be difficult for some readers.
The audiobook of this chapter is available here, on the TLHOC Podcast.
Prologue — Richard Pratt
June 25, 6:00 pm
Emigration Canyon, in the foothills above Salt Lake City
It’s impossible in life not to tread on the people we love.
I suppose it’s the nature of being in this frantic ant colony. And no, I don’t mean Salt Lake City, specifically, and not even any city for that matter. I guess I mean the whole thing: Life, love, death, and loss.
In stumbling through it all, we can’t help but step on each other. We’re drunks in the dark, trying to find our way through an empty desert. And so we fall together, and we fall apart, clumsily crushing each other in our confusion. It’s part of the deal, I suppose. But I’ve always believed that when you step on the people you love, you must at least try to tread as lightly as you can. And you must never tread on those whose backs can’t bear your weight.
I wish I had always followed that advice, but I know I didn’t. For what I did to Justin, I bear the responsibility. And the responsibility for all that followed. For my part in all the death that followed.
And yet, even after all that has happened, I find it impossible to view my life as a tragedy. Even now, after so much is gone, I can’t see my story as anything but a miracle. Standing here in these foothills, looking out over the ruined city that was once my home, I’m acutely aware that I have lost… everything. Keith is gone. I’ll never see him again, never touch him again. I’ll never hold him, or anyone, in my arms again. Justin is gone. Billy is gone. Even Michelle and Pil, who bore me no love, are gone.
I’ll never enjoy another meal. I’ll never delight in the touch or even the gaze of a lover. And now that Billy has stepped through, I’ll never again even enjoy the smile of a friend.
And yet, now that I’m truly alone, I’ve found this sense of peace that is hard to describe. I remember touches of it from when I was alive. Frequently, after a long day of teaching classes at the University, I’d leave the campus with my head spinning with new ideas and new intellectual connections. Walking home down 2nd South, I’d glance into the cars that lined the road, looking for what I called “artifacts of life.”
It was a creepy habit, and one that I shouldn’t have indulged. But even while I was alive I knew that every car held a mystery, every passenger seat was a story waiting to be told. The old, battered teddy bear sitting alone in the afternoon sunlight embodied the love of a toddler, and a family that was happy or lost or somewhere in between. The collection of charms hanging from a rear-view mirror. The ticket stub from the symphony in the cup holder. The picture of the old couple lovingly taped to the dashboard, where the driver could glance at it while she waited at stoplights. Every item, proof of another life saturated with mystery and hope and love and despair. Sometimes the awareness of it all would overwhelm me, and I’d feel both too small to understand, and as important as even the most world-shaking heroes in history. It was as if a million flashbulbs suddenly went off and illuminated the vast, dark desert in which I had been wandering. The immeasurable complexity and wonder of it all was humbling and filled me with both awe and terror.
But fortunately, the split second illumination would always wink back out as quickly as it came. And before I reached home, I’d find myself back in the warm and comforting darkness of everyday life. Grateful, because the vastness of it all would have driven me mad.
“The Vastness.” That was Billy’s word.
Being a ghost is something like that. But for us, those flashbulbs went off, and then the desert stayed illuminated. The grandeur and strangeness of it drove most of us mad. Those whose eyes adjusted to the brilliance longed for the dark, which had been easier to endure. We remembered when the touch of a lover in the middle of the night would collapse the vastness to just a single instant, into a world small enough to fit under the sheets in a locked and inky bedroom.
No, my life wasn’t a tragedy. It was longer than many lives. I made mistakes, and I trod on people whose backs could not bear my weight—and yet they loved me anyway.
And I had Keith.
For ten years, right until the moment I died, he showed me the best of what being alive had to offer. My loss of him will be an ache I’ll gladly carry. I want to say that I’ll carry it forever, but I think even as a ghost, it’s impossible to imagine what “forever” really means. And I have every reason to believe that my sanity isn’t going to endure it.
But for now, looking over what remains of this once-great American city, I can hold fast to my memories. And it will be my pain that keeps me sane for a bit longer.
It may be a day or a month. Or it may be thousands of years. The dead can’t know what is coming, any more than the living. But unlike the living, we know that it is going to go on forever…
June 5, 9:02 pm
Three days after he died, the Void spat out Richard like a mouthful of curdled milk.
He arrived back in the world in terror, as every ghost did—his face a contorted mass of pain, unable to scream through a mouth still unformed, unable to see through eyes that had yet to gel. Gross appendages that had yet to become arms and legs, kicked feebly against what felt like a wall, what felt like furniture, what felt like a floor far more solid than he himself.
Inside of the body, which was quickly assembling itself like a time-lapse film of a developing fetus, Richard Pratt knew nothing but agony. He did not know he was Richard Pratt, did not know he was even human. All he felt was terror and pain.
Crushing loss so powerful that if he had a heart, it would have stopped beating just to escape it. If he had a mind, it would have crumbled under the relentless weight of it.
By the time his body was fully formed, Richard began to suspect that he was not just a mass of pain and loneliness. He was something that had once been human. And his first coherent thoughts emerged:
How can a mind so empty be in such agony? How can emptiness feel so full of despair, of loss, of regret?
In the Void, he had lost everything. He knew that there had been a life before this moment. In fact, there had been a whole human story. But the Void had stripped everything away from him—the people he loved, the life he had, and eventually, even his memories and his sense of who he used to be. All that remained was a deep and soul-crushing sense of everything that had been taken from him.
The darkness broke, and Richard sensed shapes and colors around him. The world slowly took shape, like salt crystals in a jar of seawater, or as if the memories were acid, dripping on him with a maddening lack of predictability or pattern.
Images from the Void returned…
He had been flowing toward something, as if he had been floating in a stream of black blood, in a night so deep that no light could ever penetrate it. But still he had felt the current drawing him toward a distant ocean. And worse, he had not been alone in the stream. The river had been full of the dead, like rotting corpses torn from their graves by a tsunami. They battered against him in the same desperation and terror. Their fingers clawed at each other with a shared, mindless need.
But then he had been… what?
Yes, that seemed right. It was as if a claw or branch had plucked him from the stream. No, chosen him, and then hurled him backward, toward the land of the living. And after the Void had ripped everything from him, his empty husk found itself… here.
Silence. No longer did Richard have an urge to scream. The sound of his ragged, panicked breathing slowly faded in his ears.
He heard a clock ticking somewhere, and the sound was sharp and clear. It’s a grandfather clock, he thought, unsure how he knew that in the blackness. And more sounds: a low hum he couldn’t identify. A dog’s bark, very far away. Slow traffic. These sounds were familiar, and as he focused on them, the world stopped spinning. He sensed a floor under him. And then a name gelled in the dark.
Richard, he remembered. My name is Richard Pratt.
No, that’s not quite right. My name was Richard Pratt…
Like moths drawn to a light, other memories fluttered to him. This was my home, he thought, and paused. The thread to who he was felt so fragile that he was afraid that if he tugged upon it, it would break.
In the darkness, he tried raising one hand in front of his face, and with painful slowness and trembling, his eyes slowly eased open, with an almost audible creaking.
His hand looked strange. Not like his own at all, but then again, what did his own hand look like? Has it always been monochrome, like an old sepia photograph?
He blinked his eyes, and the haziness receded further. His hand before his face took on more form and substance, even a hint of color. He dropped his arm and saw the ceiling above him, textured and white, and turning his head, he saw walls, furniture, photographs; all in muted shades of shimmering browns and grays.
His body convulsed.
A scream tried to rip its way past his lips, but there was no sound. No air. He knew he was suffocating, and he had a momentary sense that this entire scene—this living room, this carpet, these lamps, these walls—were all underwater in some giant gray aquarium.
What torture was this? Who had brought him out of the Void just to drown? He flailed against the panic and pain in his chest, trying desperately to claw his way to some pocket of air. Launching himself off the floor, he crouched on all fours like an animal, cornered and injured, every cell of his body aching for air, all thoughts ripped away in the panic and pain and fear.
His body took a painful, gasping breath.
The air in his lungs was like a revelation. It was cool and crisp and alive. There was a tang in the air that he recognized, and he struggled to find the word.
And then: My mother used Pine-Sol, when I was a child… Someone has been cleaning…
And then all at once the thought: This is my first breath since… it happened.
Crouched and trembling, he allowed the breath to come in and out of his lungs until it felt almost natural. He feared that his breathing would not be automatic, that he would have to consciously draw in each breath, and then consciously push it out again. He watched his breathing and counted the breaths. He let it continue, and he felt the panic recede.
I’m breathing. And it feels almost… normal.
He sank to the floor, his cheek against the carpet, his entire body shivering from the effort.
The gray carpet looked lush and soft. Why then did it feel like textured concrete under his cheek? He let his fingers toy with the strands just inches from his eyes. Each fiber of the carpet was thick and wiry, and didn’t give under his touch. It was as if a master sculptor had carved this carpet in marble, with attention to every detail, recreating the woven strands with infinite care, making an illusion of carpet so complete that it fooled the mind. Two feet from his face was the back of what must be a couch. His couch, he knew, although the memories of it were still vague. He levered himself up on his knees, and peered over it, like a soldier peeking from a foxhole.
This is my living room, he thought. I live here. The ticking sounds drew his eyes, and he saw the grandfather clock with the swinging pendulum. He could even read the time.
9:08. AM? PM? He couldn’t be sure.
Beyond the couch was a TV underneath a gabled front window, but strangely, the window itself was boarded up with plywood. A hammer and nails sat on top of the TV, where someone had left them.
A memory dripped onto him: The sound of that window, shattering with an explosion. Shards of glass flying. And as if that memory was the last nudge he needed, the sepia world around him suddenly exploded into vibrant color. It all descended on him so quickly that it took his newly discovered breath away for a moment. The gray carpet turned a pale blue. The white lampshade looming above him, he saw, was actually a luminous yellow. The couch, patterned in brown and blue swirls. Suddenly, everything appeared surreal and strangely crystal clear to his senses. The colors now seemed too vibrant, as if they were producing their own internal light, the smells in the air became too crisp, the sounds too sharp, like cymbals.
Another memory dripped onto him. Something called a movie: Something so real it felt artificial, every sound jarring, every color too harsh and grating, assaulting his eyes and ears the way the carpet assaulted his fingertips.
And yet it was also familiar. A life whose memories were swirling back with ever-increasing rapidity. And with his memories, Richard sensed the yapping dogs of madness receding back into the shadows. His world had now solidified, like an egg in a frying pan, turning from transparent to opaque. Hazy edges had become sharp. He looked around the room, intoxicated by the brilliance of it all. And what he saw caused him to recoil against the couch in horror.
To his left, the wall was covered with a cream-colored wallpaper that was perhaps too elegant for the room. But he hardly noticed the wallpaper itself. For upon it was a magnificent crimson tree.
A tree of blood.
The tree was rooted to the carpet with a brilliant red trunk that then vaulted toward the ceiling, splaying out in branches of that same red. It looked much like the cottonwood trees he grew up with, and he would have chased that though further had he not realized with a sick lurch in his stomach that he was looking at his own blood.
And more, not just blood, but what looked like bits of gray and white that he instinctively knew was skull and brain tissue. His own skull. His own brains. It was not a tree, as he had first thought. It was just an explosion of blood and gore upon the wall. The branches were the ballistic splatters, the trunk where the gore had run down to the carpet.
It was here, he thought. This is where I died. Here, in my own living room. Involuntarily, his hands came to his temples, just to make sure that everything was still intact. He reached out to touch the blood, which looked as fresh and wet as if it had been painted on the wall only moments before. But the red stain was cold and hard to the touch, like glass. The beads of gore running down the trunk could have been cast in resin.
At the base of the wall, just under his left hand, the carnage was worse. Blood pooled in quantities the carpet simply couldn’t absorb and ran into the tiled hallway like spreading roots. This was not blood that had run down the wall. This was where he had bled out. This was where he’d taken his last breath, as his heart struggled to pump the blood through his shattered skull, but had only pumped it into this pool of gore.
This is where I died.
Suddenly, gasping for breath, he fell back against the couch.
Knowing with certainty he was dead was one thing. But looking at the scene of his own murder (and yes, of course it was murder) was something else entirely.
If I am dead, what does that make me? Am I a ghost? A zombie? Or just a damned soul? No, it couldn’t be that. If I’m a damned soul, it would feel more like I was being punished. But what I feel is…. forgotten. Totally and utterly forgotten. Like I am floating in a tank, and the world is just being projected around me.
With hitching breath, Richard found a wail arising from deep in his chest. At first it came out soundlessly, but then he heard it. He couldn’t believe this was his voice, because it scared him. There was so much pain there. So much despair. So much anguish and, yes, even a touch of madness. The hounds he’d felt receding hadn’t gone far.
And yet it was also a comfort that he could hear his own cries. Drawing in a ragged breath, he tried words, sensing that he had to confirm to the universe that he was real, that he still existed.
“My name is…” he rasped. “My name… is…” and no further words came.
“My name is Richard!” he practically screamed, and the despair turned suddenly to laughter. Hearing his name spoken aloud gave him something to grasp—something tangible and real, a sign that there was a life here, that he truly had been alive. If he’d had a name, then there must have been more. A birth, a life, a story. He desperately thrust his consciousness back into the shadowed reaches of his mind, but nothing more came. There were shadows lurking there. And there were tigers in the shadows that he didn’t dare approach.
There were handprints in the blood, and on the walls, where someone had levered themselves from the floor. Bloody tracks, both big and small, led into the hallway. He crawled forward and placed his hand over one bloody handprint, which was amazingly clear. There had been a band on the left ring finger. He looked down and saw a similar band on his own. But this wasn’t his hand print. His hands were larger. On his knees now, he placed his hand over the smaller print.
And a memory dripped.
“Keith” he said slowly, sounding out the single syllable as if it was in a language he was just learning. More memories dripped on him, faster now. Too fast, and he pulled back from the wall as if it was too hot to touch.
Slowly, he spoke the words.
“My name is Richard Pratt. I lived here for… many years. And I had… A lover. A partner. A husband. His name was… Keith… Keith Woo.”
In his mind he imagined a face, contorted in pain, splattered in blood. It was the man he loved, screaming his name, as the blood tree blossomed on the wall, and the gore ran down to root itself in the carpet. Seeing that face in agony was even worse than seeing his own.
And with that, his entire life returned to him in a rush. He remembered everything. And now he knew, instinctively, and with absolute certainty, that he was dead. He remembered everything, except those moments leading up to his own death, which remained strangely but mercifully blank.
It took several long minutes for Richard Pratt to arise from the carpet, and to stand in the center of the room in which he had been killed. All the while, he kept repeating what seemed like the most important fact. The fact that kept him grounded and proved that he was real.
“My name is Richard Pratt. I lived here. I loved a man named Keith Woo. And I died in this room.”
It was all clear now. Every detail of the room, in bright colors. It was a simple home, with nothing out of the ordinary, except the gore against the wall, and the picture window across the room, covered with thick plywood. It had been nailed up quickly and sloppily, and a corner of the curtain swayed lightly in the draft.
He was still staring at the movement—the first he’d seen in this world—when he heard a key turning in the lock.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.
Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.