Though I gave no sign, I was certain that day
that something ominous was approaching.
It was as if my blood and flesh were not my own,
or that they might just forget their tasks.
I fondled this fluttering feeling all day,
alternately thrilled and terrified.
Wondering what lay beyond this
new door, so tantalizingly ajar.
I never told you that I might
abandon my skin.
Or that our hearts might
lose the thread
of our never ending
—Excerpt from “June 2” by Keith Woo, as it appears in “The Heavy Work of Vanishing: The Collected Poetry of Keith Woo,” edited by Pi’ilani Kilani, page 185.
June 5, 8:15 pm
The Salt Lake valley has always been a world apart.
Geographically, it occupies the northeastern corner of the Great Basin, bordered to the east by a wall of mountains that rises impressively from the valley floor, and to the west by deserts whose extreme weather bleached the bones of early settlers from the Rockies to the Sierras. The valley, and indeed most of the Great Basin, was long seen as the last great trial to be endured by those seeking their riches and fame in the West.
So when the Mormons made it their own in the mid-19th century, there was not a lot of competition or complaint.
Let them have it, the world thought. It will make an amusing place to pass through on our way to meet our destiny.
In this way, Salt Lake City was always the Stone in the Stream.
Hundreds of thousands of settlers rushed through and around the city, descending from the Wasatch, and barely pausing to pick up supplies as they pushed to the gold fields or the promise of rich farmland to the west. Salt Lake was the last dry rock of stability in the rushing river of the great westward migration. Brigham Young and his followers were content to settle on that rock, to build upon it, and create their paradise apart from their persecutors.
For the first time since Richard’s murder, Keith and Michelle had mustered the courage to have a dinner out.
They’d decided to get pizza at The Pie, just off the University campus, because it was their favorite haunt when they had been in College together, almost a decade ago. They hadn’t been back there in months, despite it being a regular ritual during their undergraduate years. But as she looked around their old pizza joint, Michelle realized that nothing much had changed.
For the past thirty minutes, Michelle had tried hard to keep the conversation light, and mostly she had succeeded. She even thought that she saw flashes of her oldest friend peeking through the grief, and for the first time since Richard’s death, she could almost imagine a time when they would both be healed from what they had endured. But now, toying with the pizza that they had barely touched, she looked over at Keith and saw that the sadness had once again fallen over him like a cloak. She knew her own tears were still on a hair-trigger, but she worried more for Keith than for herself. What he had been through was far more traumatic, and his loss greater than any she could imagine.
“Tell me about the house,” Keith finally said, putting down his half-eaten slice of pizza.
Michelle stopped chewing, surprised at the question. Of course, neither of them had been back to the house since Richard’s death. Keith knew that her husband Pil was taking care of everything in the Avenues, and he’d seemed content to not know any of the details. Michelle paused, unsure how to respond. “What do you want to know, honey?”
Keith toyed with the greasy slice on his plate. “I assume there was police tape. Have they taken it down? Have they let anybody inside?”
Michelle took a deep breath. “Actually, just this morning. It’s officially… no longer a crime scene.” She regretted the term the second she uttered it and saw Keith wince. His home—the home he had shared with the man he loved for ten years—reduced to those two words.
“Crime scene,” he repeated as if he was trying out the taste of the words in his mouth. “How about the front window?”
“They let Pil board that up yesterday. Don’t worry, the rains last night didn’t get in. He did a pretty good job, I think.”
Rallying his strength, Keith looked directly into her eyes. “What about… the living room?”
Michelle had been dreading this question. “Well, the police had a company they recommended. They went in this morning and cleaned up everything. Pil went over this afternoon, and he texted that they were done.”
“How… does it look?”
“He says it looks okay. They should replace the glass in the next few days, then it should be ready to go. But we don’t need to think about that yet. You’ll stay with us until you’re ready to decide what you want to do.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can eventually go home, if that’s what you want. But I think you should really consider just selling that house and finding someplace new. You can even stay with us permanently if you’d like. You know we’d love to have you with us.”
Keith smiled a bit. “Pil too?”
Michelle suppressed her own desire to laugh. “Of course, sweetie. Pil especially.”
The conversation lagged, and Michelle could see his mind working behind his furrowed brow.
Keith had been her best friend since high school. He’d stood behind every decision she’d made, including the surprising one to go on a mission when she was twenty. And when she’d returned early from that mission to Hawaii, towing behind her a new Maori husband made up of nearly four hundred pounds of muscle and tattoos, he stood behind her then as well. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Pil was the world’s biggest teddy bear, and that Keith had swooned over him from the moment that they met.
A flash of guilt played across Michelle’s mind. Keith had certainly reacted better to Pil than she had reacted when she met Richard three years later.
Somehow, she had never trusted Richard, and never liked him, right from that first meeting.
He always seemed so cold and distant, even arrogant. And despite her friend’s clear love and devotion for the older and renowned professor of Linguistics, Michelle had never really warmed up to Richard. She couldn’t get past the fact that Keith’s so-called “Poppa Bear” was more than twice his age, a fact that creeped her out and made her wonder about the man’s morals, his motives, and his stability. But more than that, there was just something about his manner she couldn’t get past. Usually, she dismissed her feelings as just being overprotective of her oldest and dearest friend. But those feelings had persisted for a decade.
Unbidden, the tears came back to Michelle’s eyes, and she pulled another napkin from the holder on the table. She had created a small mountain of crumpled napkins next to her plate, discreetly wiping the tears that still made their appearance during the evening. She hoped that one day soon they’d be able to get through a meal without either of them breaking into tears. But in thinking that, Michelle couldn’t help but notice that Keith’s eyes were dry, and had been for the whole evening. The sadness was still a dark cloud around him, but at least the tears had stopped. Sometime, in the last day or so, his grief had led him into a kind of numbness that, although it frightened her a bit, was certainly a relief from the waterworks.
Keith took her hand. “I’m sorry, Mish. I shouldn’t have asked you about the house. I know that it’s probably too early. It’s only been three days. Maybe neither of us is ready for this conversation.”
It felt strange for him to be the one doing the comforting, since he was the one that had lost his lover just three days before. She suddenly felt very self-conscious. Keith was aware she’d never really liked Richard, and that she’d only put up with the man’s brashness and arrogance because she knew Keith loved his husband so completely.
I wish that I’d been able to see the man with Keith’s eyes, she thought. But of course, it’s too late for that.
One of Keith’s favorite bands, Mumford and Sons, was playing on the restaurant sound system, but he didn’t seem to notice. He toyed with the pepperoni on his pizza, picking them off and stacking them off to the side to eat later (a quirk he’d had since high school). She let the silence between them extend itself. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. Keith broke it with a loud sigh.
“I guess I’m trying to ask myself the big questions,” he said, staring at the stack of pepperoni. “What do I do now? After ten years with Richard, who am I on my own, anyway? He was everything to me. How can I possibly get up in the morning alone, and not turn to the right and see him lying there, stretching and growling the way he did every morning when the alarm went off? Who am I, other than the man who loved Richard Pratt for the last ten years?”
Michelle looked at him and reached across to touch his chubby cheek. “You’re Keith Woo. You’re still the sweet, cuddly, adorable boy that made our high school years tolerable. You were the most amazing person I knew back then, and you still are. You were that person before you met Richard Pratt. And you’ll be that person after. Now, in ten years, in twenty. Hopefully, in fifty or seventy. Honey, how old are you? Thirty-two? You’re still young, with your whole life in front of you. I know it’s hard to see now, but you’re going to be fine. We’re all going to be fine.” She paused, then forced a smile. “Most importantly, you have me and Pil. We’re your family, and we’ll always love you.”
It struck her that, for the past few minutes, the whole restaurant had faded away. It was like there was nobody else in the basement dining room, despite the bustle of a busy Friday night.
“Let’s box this up,” Keith said. “You can take it home to Pil. I don’t think my appetite is back yet.”
“Are you sure? Pil could polish off this whole pizza in about two minutes flat.” The image of the big Maori man wolfing down a whole pizza made Keith smile, as he often did when she spoke of Pil. Michelle had known for years of Keith’s obvious but weakly denied feelings for the man she’d married. It warmed her to think of the affection between her gay best friend and her own straight-but-not-narrow husband. Somehow, the bond between the two men made her feel closer to them both.
Keith looked up and caught her smiling, and a hint of a smile flickered across his face as well. It felt like a weight sliding off her shoulders and onto the floor. The two of them had not smiled once since the horrors of Tuesday night.
“I want to go home,” Keith said, suddenly.
Michelle was shocked, and unsure what to say. “Oh, Keith, honey… are you sure? It’s only been three days. You can’t be ready for that.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. The police have finished, right? You said Pil boarded up the window, and the living room is clean. I don’t see any reason to put it off. It’s my home. I need to go back.”
Michelle took a long time wiping her mouth, then folded the napkin carefully on the table in front of her, next to the pile of crumpled ones. Keith watched her as though she was attempting origami. He didn’t say a word and just waited for her to finish. Finally, she pushed her plate aside.
“But honey, you really don’t need to go back there. Not yet. Nobody needs you to be there. Can’t you just stay with us a few days more?”
Keith took her hand and held it until her moist eyes finally came up to meet his.
“Richard’s dead, Michelle. I need to come to grips with that. I need to be able to be there, in that house. In…. that room. It’s not going to get any easier. In fact, if I put it off, I think I might lose my nerve. It might as well be tonight.”
Her eyes welled up, but she fought back the tears.
“Take me home,” Keith said. “We can pretend I’m going back to the dorms, the way you used to drop me off all those years ago. After you got your first car…”
“Does that mean you’re going to tease me about my hot Hawaiian husband the way you did back then?”
“Absolutely. I’ll make you tell me again if the rest of him is as big as his hands.”
Despite herself, Michelle giggled. But the laughter quickly turned to tears. She slid out of the booth and joined him on his side.
“I love you, Pea,” she said as Keith leaned his head on her shoulder. Michelle was taller than Keith, and when they hugged, it was always just easier for her to nestle the short, chubby man’s head under her chin. She could feel the softness of his thick black hair against her cheek, and knew that they looked to all the world like a pair of young lovers, making up after a nasty spat.
“I love you too, Pod,” Keith said, and squeezed her hand. But after a moment, he pulled away. “Now take me home, bee-atch. You’ve spent way more time than you should with this shit-show.”
She blew her nose into the napkin she’d been folding, destroying all those carefully made creases. “Okay. And when the hell are you going to learn to drive so you can take me out on the town. A girl has needs, you know.”
“Don’t I know it,” Keith said, in his best Katharine Hepburn impersonation. And more than just a smile, she heard them both laugh, for the first time since she found him wailing and covered with Richard’s blood.
They were still sitting in the car, five minutes after they arrived in the Avenues.
This can’t be a good idea, Michelle thought. It’s too soon, for either of us, to be back here. Why did Keith insist?
It was a clear, beautiful evening, and as far as she could see, the neighborhood had returned to normal after the violence of Tuesday night. All the cop cars had departed, and the only sounds they could hear through their open windows were the birds that always sang so beautifully in the early evenings.
Looking past her friend and out the car window, Michelle could see Keith and Richard’s house. The police tape was down. The boarded-up picture window at the front of the house would have made the place look abandoned, if not for the fact that the lawn and the house were impeccably maintained, as Richard always made sure it had to be.
Michelle looked at her watch. It was 9:20. Someone in the neighborhood had mowed a lawn earlier in the evening, and the scent was still lingering in the air. She could hear the distant traffic down on South Temple, but here, everything was still. This neighborhood was often filled with children; skipping rope or playing hopscotch on the wide sidewalks. But tonight, they had all gone in for the evening, and nobody could be seen in either direction. Lights were coming on in the houses all around them, as the evening gloom deepened.
How quickly a neighborhood can return to normal, she thought.
Finally, Keith looked up and turned his head to see the front of his house. She couldn’t see his expression, but she could imagine the war of emotions that must be playing out on his face. It was at about this time on Tuesday night that it happened. Another clear summer evening, just like this one.
Why did he insist that we come back here?
She was about to start the car and drive away, when Keith suddenly opened the door and got out. She got out too and found that she had to rush to keep up as he made a beeline for the house. When she caught up to him on the porch, she saw he had a scrap of something in his hand, which he balled up and shoved into his pocket.
Keith paused on the doorstep, fumbling for his keys.
“It’s not too late for us to just go back to my place, Pea,” Michelle said. “Pil could make us cocktails and we could sit out in the backyard. You really don’t need to do this. Not tonight.”
Keith didn’t respond, but he also didn’t put the key into the lock. Slowly, Michelle walked up behind him and put her arms around him. She could detect the tremor in his shoulders, but she knew this had to be his decision. It would be best for her not to press him further.
As if he were on board a swaying ship, Keith slowly and deliberately worked the key into the lock, turned it, and opened the door.
The first thing Michelle noticed was the scent of cleaning supplies. That’s definitely Pine-Sol, she thought to herself, and despite the circumstances, the smell of it brought her some comfort. It was one of those smells from childhood that could take you right back to your parent’s kitchen.
Through the gloom, she could see the staircase on the right, and the passageway to the left leading toward the kitchen and the back porch of the house. The living room on the left was separated from the corridor by an archway with two sliding glass doors, which she had never seen closed. Just a half-dozen steps now, and Keith would be in the room where Richard died. Michelle realized she was holding her breath, waiting for Keith to move through the door and into the house. She wished she could say something that would help, but this was Keith’s moment to face what had happened, and she could only help if he asked her to.
In that moment before Keith crossed the threshold of his home, Michelle felt a chill run up her spine. It was as if there was a presence here; or like the very loss and sadness of this house was something she could feel in the cool air pouring out onto the porch.
Just when she thought he might turn and flee, Keith seemed to make his decision, and walked deliberately into the house. He didn’t stop until he reached the archway into the living room, turned, and flicked on the overhead light from the wall switch. The light seemed dazzling.
Keith looked down at the spot where his lover had died in his arms.
Michelle took a few steps forward, her own anxiety and memories threatening to overwhelm her. The last time either of them had seen this room, it was as if someone had exploded a hand grenade of blood against the back wall. The gore there had flowed down the wall to the carpet. The memory of rushing into this house and finding the horror show in this room was enough to make her knees weak. But no longer was her best friend cradling the dead body of his lover at her feet. No longer was the air filled with his wailing cries and the coppery scent of blood. Now, the room was bright and pristine and smelling of Pine-Sol.
Looking closer past her friend, Michelle could see the limits of the cleaning. A circle six feet in diameter had been scrubbed at their feet, and the wall above had been scoured until no sign of blood remained. The room looked as it had, and even the demarcation between what had been cleaned and what hadn’t would not have been something a person would normally notice. Not unless they knew to look for it.
“They did a good job, I think,” Keith said, weakly. “The carpet looks fine.”
Keith’s hands were trembling. Slowly, she eased her arms around him, and rested her cheek against the top of his head. “Yeah, it looks good,” she said and waited for him to say whatever would come next.
“I think I need to sleep,” he said, finally.
She waited nearly a minute to respond. “Pea, let’s go back to my place. There is no rush for you to spend a night here, sweetie.”
“No, I need to stay. And I need to stay here alone. I love you, Pod, but this is something I need to do. This was our home. Me and Richard. And now that he’s gone, it’s still my home. I’m not going to sell it. I plan to live here for a very long time. I need to get past tonight, so each day… can start to get easier.”
Every instinct in Michelle wanted to protest. She even wanted to grab him by the shoulders and turn him to look at her, so she could plead with him not to put himself through a night in this house alone. But she fought those impulses because, deep inside, she knew Keith was right. And her desire to rescue him was more about her own needs than his.
“How about this,” she finally said. “I need to go through the paperwork that we got from the funeral home. How about if I put you to bed, and then I’ll do that. When I’m done, and I know you’re asleep, I’ll let myself out.”
Rather than answer her, Keith stayed rooted to his spot, his eyes still on the wall and the carpet at his feet. Finally, he let out a deep breath and turned to her. The pain and sadness in his eyes nearly rocked her back on her heels.
“What time do we need to be at the funeral home tomorrow?” Keith asked, weakly. They had picked up the paperwork there this morning, but the actual meeting to make the funeral arrangements wasn’t until tomorrow afternoon.
“We need to be there at 4:00. So we should leave here at 3:45?”
“Okay,” he said. “I’m going up to bed. Make sure you get home and get some sleep. I don’t want to wake up in the morning and see you still going over papers at the kitchen table.”
“I promise,” she said.
Raising his eyes, Keith looked at the boarded-up picture window. Michelle realized how much different it made the living room look. Much more claustrophobic, even threatening.
“Thank Pil for putting up the plywood.”
“I will.” She caressed the back of his head. “He loves you, honey. We both do. Are you sure I can’t sleep here with you tonight? I could stay in the guest room. That way, if you need me, I’ll be just across the hall.”
“Pod, if I need you, you live three blocks away. I promise I’ll call.”
Realizing this was a battle she would not win, Michelle let out a sigh. “Okay. But I’ll be back in the morning.”
With what looked to Michelle like superhuman strength, Keith turned and walked out of the living room. She watched as he fished his keys out of his pocket and then dropped them onto the small table near the door. Then, to her surprise, he also pulled out a small piece of crime scene tape. He placed it gently next to his keys, and then laid his wallet on top of it, as if he was afraid it would escape in the night.
She could see the weariness in his face now, and she hoped that he would indeed sleep. Gently, she followed him up the stairs to the master bedroom on the second floor. She was glad to see that the bed was nicely made, and she suspected that too was thanks to Pil. Neither Keith nor Richard were the kind of men who worried about making their bed every day.
“Do you think you can sleep?” she asked, as Keith sank down on the mattress.
“I think I can’t do anything but sleep,” he replied with a sigh. “I feel like I could pass out at any second.”
“Okay. I’ll go downstairs, and I promise I won’t stay long. I’ll glance in before I go, just to make sure you’re sleeping.”
Sitting on the side of the bed, Keith looked up into the eyes of his dearest friend, and Michelle could sense the gratitude radiating off him, even through his grief and fatigue. She gave him a quick kiss on the forehead. “Do you have your phone?”
“Right here and plugged in.”
“Okay. Sleep well, Pea” she said and squeezed his hand.
She closed the door on her way out. The last thing she saw was Keith pulling back the comforter on the neatly made bed. And then he began to undress, truly alone, for the first time in a decade.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.