The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 1.4: Every Relationship is a Mystery

Book One — The Hereafter

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June 5, 9:29 pm

After tucking him in, Michelle came downstairs feeling as weary as she could ever remember being.

Keith had gone to sleep almost immediately, and she was surprised and grateful for that. He looked so haggard and tired, and even though it seemed the worst of his tears were past, there was still a sense of helplessness and defeat in him that scared her. He had been sleeping a lot since the murder, but he still looked drawn and exhausted. She supposed sleep was a coping mechanism, but was it a healthy one? She had no idea. This was unknown territory for them both. The police psychologist told her to expect that nothing would make sense, for either of them, for a while.

On the stairs, she felt a chill, and stopped. Over the railing, she could look down into the living room.

Where it happened…

She still felt that night, and the horror of it, clinging to her like a smell she couldn’t get out of her hair. And it wasn’t the blood and the death that haunted her the most, but the face of her dearest friend, broken and destroyed and empty. She shivered, remembering the way he had looked up at her as she burst into the house. He was crumpled on the floor, covered with blood, and looking up from Richard’s shattered head in his lap. What still haunted her was the silent gasping, as if he was desperately trying to draw enough breath for another scream. It was something that she would never forget, and in the past three days she had replayed her memories of that night until she could no longer stand them.

How Keith had the presence of mind to speed dial her number that night, in the moments after Richard was shot, she didn’t know. But that single act was all that he had in him. He must have dropped the phone before she answered, because when she accepted the call, all she heard was wailing. She dropped her own cell phone on the kitchen floor, and was out the door and running, with no idea of what she would find.

She and Pil lived near L street, which was only two and a half short blocks away, so Michelle ran the short distance in barely a minute. And she turned Keith and Richard’s corner just as the police were arriving to investigate the smashed Tacoma pickup that had rammed a tree down the block. The blaring of the radio in the smashed truck was loud, but it couldn’t drown out the sound of Keith’s cries billowing through the shattered window. The police officer getting out of his car heard it, and she screamed at him with words that she could no longer remember. But it was enough that the cop broke into a run at her heels.

She barely saw the boy sitting on the lawn, his head in his hands, as she ran past him. Leaping onto the porch, she already had her key out, and the cop almost caught up to her before she could get the door open. He too was yelling now, but Michelle couldn’t hear it.

She wished she could forget the moments that followed. She kept replaying the whole horrible experience in her mind. Keith was on the floor, with Richard’s shattered head in his lap. There was so much blood everywhere. The spray pattern of gore against the wall framed Keith’s twisted, splattered, tortured face. She remembered the blood on the wall looked like a tree—the branches spreading over the two broken figures who had taken shelter below.

She couldn’t help it. She screamed at that moment too. Just once, but it was loud. The cop was standing next to her, cursing and fumbling with his radio with one hand, the other reaching out as if he wanted to grab her sleeve. Keith had lost his breath and was hyperventilating. The amount of gore that covered him and Richard made it look like a dozen people had been murdered in that room, rather than just one. He raised one bloody hand up toward her, before allowing it to fall onto Richard’s still chest. And then he made a horrific sound, deep in his throat. It reminded Michelle of the death rattle she had once heard a deer make, just after her father shot it on a hunting trip. It took her knees out from under her, and before she knew what she was doing, she was there in the muck and gore of it all, holding Keith’s face, and she could hear herself saying, “Look at me! Keith! Look at me! Keep your eyes on me, Pea…”

The policeman tried to pull her away, but she wouldn’t budge, and he slipped on the congealing mess and came down hard on his hands and knees. She remembered the cop’s voice clearly. He just kept saying “dear God,” over and over again, while fumbling with his radio to call for backup. She felt the cop’s hand on her shoulder, and he pulled. And Michelle remembered how the three of them, now all covered in Richard’s blood, fell away from his body. His broken head made a wet, grotesque sound as it fell out of Keith’s lap and onto the sodden carpet. She held Keith as he wailed against her, now nothing but a mass of pain and despair. She wasn’t even sure that he knew who she was.

Frozen now on the staircase, Michelle tried to force herself to stop remembering. The horror of it had claimed her again and again these past three days. She would have to learn how to push it away. She knew it would be years before either her or Keith could really recover from what had happened that night, but Keith was trying. For his sake, as well as her own, she had to try too.

She had more hope for her own recovery than for Keith’s. His wounds were so much deeper. His loss was so much more profound. She never understood or liked Richard Pratt. But she couldn’t deny that Keith had loved him with a white-hot intensity.

She pushed it out of her mind, descending the last steps and then snatching up the brochures and paperwork from the hall table. As she passed through the archway into the living room, she kept her eyes studiously ahead, and entered the dining room at the back of the house.

It was now much darker, and she had to switch on the dining room chandelier. She looked at her watch, which said 9:35. Hopefully Keith would sleep soundly through the night, but she had no intention of leaving until she was absolutely sure that he wouldn’t wake up in a panic.

After making herself a cup of tea in the kitchen, Michelle sat down at the dining room table with the brochures and forms from the funeral home that afternoon. It had just been a preliminary visit to secure the company’s services, and to arrange for them to pick up Richard’s body from the coroner. Tomorrow night, they would get together again to sign the forms and work out the details. She was glad that they had only spent an hour there today. Tomorrow might be more difficult, especially if Keith decided he wanted to see Richard’s body.

An hour later, she’d finished her cup of tea and filled out what she knew. What was left were things that only Keith could decide, and those decisions could wait until tomorrow. She’d used little torn pieces of Post-It notes (from Richard’s desk) to mark the sections that needed attention and left the documents lined up neatly in two rows on the dining room table.

Her work done, she sat for long moments in the silence of the dining room, twirling the dregs of her tea around the bottom of the cup in slow, hypnotic circles. Evening had given way to night, and the windows onto the backyard were inky, so she could not see the porch beyond.

How many summer nights had the four of them spent on that porch? It was much bigger than the one at Michelle and Pil’s house. Richard loved to grill, and, she must admit, he could work up a pretty wicked porterhouse.

In some ways, she mused, the division of labor in the Pratt-Woo household was very traditional. Richard had always been more of the husband, being the primary bread-winner and the much older of the two. Keith’s job at the University Library brought in only a token amount of money, compared with Richard’s tenured position in the Linguistics department. Richard seemed to take charge of most things in their lives, and it irked her sometimes to see him making decisions without even asking for Keith’s input. Richard’s continual need to be in control was just one of his qualities that rubbed her the wrong way. She had often asked Keith if he was okay with Richard being so domineering, but Keith always insisted that Richard was not as hard-edged as he seemed to others. That in the privacy of their own home, he was much gentler, much more mild. “He’s really just a big kid at heart,” Keith had told her. “A big kid with a big dick.”

She smiled, remembering the day he told her that. Keith had never been shy about sharing details of his sex life, and she had been equally willing, in private, to share details of her sex life with Pil. In such detail, sometimes, that she knew both Pil and Richard would have been appalled, had they ever overheard them gossiping. But if Keith was to be believed, he and Richard’s sex life had still been an almost nightly feature of their relationship, and Keith painted both him and Richard as hungry, if not particularly creative lovers. Based on his personality, Michelle had assumed that Richard was the dominant partner. But Keith told her that even though Richard was usually the top, that was more at Keith’s insistence than Richard’s. From Keith, Michelle had learned the phrase “topping from the bottom.” With a smile, Keith had told her not to mistake the partner getting fucked as being passive about it.

She actually smiled as she remembered their conversations. Oh, the things this sheltered little Mormon girl learned by having a gay best friend

With time, Michelle had concluded that what she saw in Richard and Keith was not so much a husband/wife dynamic, but more like a daddy and his boy. It was a dynamic she saw often in the gay men she had met over the years, both through Keith and Richard, and on her own. It was pretty common for an older man to find something renewing in the attention of a younger man. And for the younger man, there was something comforting in the stable affections of an older partner. Keith called Richard his Poppa Bear. And likewise, Richard called Keith his Baby Bear, although she had only heard him use the phrase when he didn’t know anyone was listening. At first, the thought of the whole Daddy/Boy thing had creeped her out. But as the years went by, she saw the genuine love and affection between the two. And even though it wasn’t something she ever understood, she knew it worked for them.

And more than anything else she knew that, despite all his faults, Richard had made her best friend very happy.

Taking her teacup back to the kitchen, she noticed Pil had been at work there too. All the dishes from the sink were done and put away.

She sighed, thinking that people outside her relationship with Pil probably didn’t understand the two of them, any better than she understood Keith and Richard. Every relationship is a mystery, she thought to herself. One which the people in it barely understand themselves. What hope is there that anybody from the outside can understand it any better?

As often happened, just thinking of Pil made her miss the big man intensely. Finding her phone, she dialed their home number.

“Hey my love,” Pil said, answering the phone the way he always did when he recognized her number. “Where are you?”

“Believe it or not, I’m sitting at Keith and Richard’s kitchen table.”

Pil seemed thoughtful for a moment. “I supposed he told you he needed to go home. That he needed to face a night there.”

“Yeah, something like that. I’m surprised. I didn’t think he’d ever want to set foot back in this house again.”

“Oh, I’m not surprised. I knew he’d want to stay. It’s all he has left of Richard. He’s not going to give it up.”

“That’s what he said. I wondered if he might sell it, but he said no, and that he plans to live here a long while.” She stretched back in the kitchen chair. “Thank you for everything you did here at the house. I know the service did the cleaning, but I suspect you did the dishes and made the bed.”

“Well, I didn’t want our little buddy coming home to a messy place.”

Michelle smiled. “You knew he’d be coming back tonight, didn’t you? That’s why you rushed to get everything done.”

“Well, I didn’t really know. But I suspected.” Pil was quiet for a long beat. “I wish I was there with you. And with Keith. I hope he understands.”

“Oh, he does, Beastie. He misses you too. I know he does. We’ll all go together tomorrow to go to the Funeral Home.”

“Good. I miss him, and I’ve been worried. I know I’ve been a missing person, taking care of things at the house. I just… Well, I really hope he understands. Did you tell him we love him?”

“Yes, of course. Constantly. But he knows that, you silly goose.” She smiled. She knew Pil was serious when he said that he loved Keith, and that if she had asked, he would have gladly told her he was welcome to stay with them permanently. They had even talked about it once, briefly, these past three days. Pil’s feelings for Keith were complicated, or at least, they looked complicated to her, watching the two men she cared about over the years.

Pil let out a big sigh. “Are you staying there tonight?”

“No,” she said. “He’s insistent he needs to be here by himself. I told him I’d only stay until I was sure he’s asleep. And I should probably go check on him.”

“Good. I think he’s right. Besides, I need you too. I’ve been staring at the TV for the past hour, hoping you’d call. I’m glad we’ve been a safe place for Keith, but having the house to ourselves tonight might help us both try to shake off this funk.”

“I think so,” she agreed. “And maybe that will help Keith too, to see we’re moving forward.”

His voice became very soft. “I need you, Barbie…”

It made her happy to hear him longing for her, and she realized she was longing for him too. More than she realized. She knew that when she got home, the two of them would make love for the first time since this had happened. And she knew it was exactly what they both needed.

“I need you too, Meowi,” she said, using the baby-talk nickname she had given him after seeing his look-alike in the Disney film Moana some years ago. The character’s name had been Maui, like the island, but Pil’s fondness for cats had inspired her to change it. “Just let me check on Keith, and if he’s asleep, I’ll let myself out, and be home in a few minutes.”

“I love you. See you soon.”

“I love you too.”

They hung up. And Michelle felt herself smiling, as she sat at the table in the silence. Smiles had been so rare these past few days. It was a relief to feel one this genuine.

Tomorrow they could spend the day together, just the three of them. Michelle could hear the ache in Pil’s voice when he spoke of wishing that he had been here. The tenderness of her husband’s connection to Keith was something that always astounded her. It was a gentle and a compassionate connection that totally belied the intimidating presence her husband projected to the world. She was pretty sure that Pil was completely straight, but he approached everything in his life with a level of gentleness and sensuality that defied easy categorization. Pil always treated Keith with the same love and kindness that he gave to her, and to animals.

Pil especially loved cats, and they gravitated to him everywhere they went. She couldn’t count the number of times they had gone to a friend’s house, and Pil had become happily trapped on the sofa under a curled up and purring cat, unable to move until it was time to go home. He never seemed to mind. He was just as happy spending his time with the cats as with the humans.

Smiling, she could easily imagine Keith curled up and sleeping in the big man’s lap like a big, chubby cat. The size difference between the two was so vast that it would almost be possible for him to do that. And she also knew that Keith himself had probably imagined himself doing exactly that over the years.

His feelings for her husband were much easier to categorize.

The heart is a complicated beast, she thought. Love and friendship are sometimes hard to tease apart.

For all their open talk, Keith had never really felt the need to confess his crush on her husband. Perhaps, she thought, because it was so easy for her to see, that it was pointless to speak it aloud. After all, she wasn’t blind. And as much as Keith loved Richard, she often wondered if there was something missing in their relationship. Did the older man never really open up and care for Keith the way he wanted, and did that leave Keith wanting more? Or was it just the perpetually frisky nature of gay men to moon over every hot guy they came across? She would be tempted to dismiss it as that, but what she felt from Keith toward Pil was more than just lust.

She smiled and realized that thinking about these two men she loved had made her feel much better. And these moments of reflection had also allowed her to realize something deeper: That her family, for all intents and purposes, was Pil and Keith. Strangely, the bond between the three of them had never really included Richard. Richard wasn’t particularly lovable, at least not to anyone but Keith. And there was always a sad and distant quality about him.

Haunted, she thought.

As guilty as she felt about it, she had to admit that she was a little glad Richard was gone. Maybe Keith would come back into her life in the constant way she had missed for the past ten years. She thought back to all the laughter she and Keith had in High School, and then in College. Keith’s falling in love with Richard had interrupted that. Maybe Keith would need her again, the way he once used to.

She shook herself out of that line of thought, because it felt like a betrayal of Keith, who loved Richard so much.

With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet. It was time to check on Keith and then go home. She’d just peek in to make sure he was sleeping soundly, although she could already hear his quiet, steady breathing in the silent house.

She’d come by early in the morning to make sure he was up. Then they would all go together to the funeral home.

What a quartet we make, she thought. Then corrected herself.

A trio. We’re truly just a trio now.

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.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. As a poet, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre; and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He enjoys hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop me a line, and consider supporting my work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. More than half of the the trilogy's over 200 chapters are already available there for subscribers.

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