The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 1.5: The Night

Book One — The Hereafter

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June 5, 9:35 pm

Richard never believed in ghosts. Even being one, his mind struggled to deny his own existence, like he was just a misplaced shadow in a painting, or an afterimage that lingered in the eye from staring at the sun too long.

Still collapsed against his own immovable front door, Richard stared as Michelle and Keith ascended the stairs. He watched as they turned the corner and disappeared into the bedroom he had shared with his lover for more than a decade.

Although he wanted to deny it, he knew he was dead. He knew he was a ghost, but he had no idea yet what that meant, or what came next. Panic lurked, like a giant gorilla behind his back, just out of sight, arms upraised, waiting for him to lose his guard so it could smash him into the ground. He had fought social anxiety and panic attacks all his life—that much he remembered. But this felt so much different. Back when he was alive, a panic attack was terrifying but brief, and he never feared he’d lose his mind because of one. But this terror was so great that he was sure if the gorilla brought down his fists, it would destroy his mind completely.

Carefully, he used some techniques he had learned in therapy for his anxiety disorder to calm the gorilla. To his surprise, the deep breathing helped, as if his ghostly body’s adrenalin and serotonin were slipping back into balance. And the gorilla took first one step back, and then another.

What felt like ten minutes later, he no longer feared he would lose his mind in the maelstrom of grief and loss. His world was still a nightmare. But for now, it was a bearable nightmare.

Michelle appeared at the top of the stairs, and he watched her descend. Halfway down, she stopped, took a deep breath, and stared over the railing, down and into the living room. For long moments she stood on the stairs, her face stormy and troubled. Until finally she descended and went into the dining room at the back of the house.

He remembered Michelle now. She was Keith’s best friend and had known him far longer than Richard had. Their history went back to college, and even to high school, where they had been just a year apart. Richard tried to fill in some of the details, but his memories still seemed indistinct, unformed, and confusing.

He remembered more now, but far from everything. He remembered his name. He remembered Keith, and Michelle, and… Pil. That would be Michelle’s husband. But his memory was strange. His life felt like a novel, lightly skimmed. He could remember emotions and feelings, but the events between them were hazy and indistinct. His life stretched out behind him like the line on a stock market chart, with all its ups and downs, highs and lows. Events and memories hung on that line like Christmas ornaments, and more were being added all the time. But there were still many empty spaces along the line—major gaps where the emotion existed—but he had no events or specific memories.

And then the line just… ended. He had no memory of anything at the end.

I can’t remember the day I died.

How did it happen? Why all the blood?

With some effort he reconstructed the week of his death, and a long string of ornaments appeared on the line. The only gap that remained was the night he died. The night he abandoned the man he loved, through no choice of his own. Just like…

A name came to him, but the ornament remained elusive.

Just like I did with Justin

Something in that name, and the memories that lay behind it, was too painful, and he pushed it away in a panic. He took a deep breath and stared at his hands, until they stopped shaking.

So what happens now?

He cradled his hand, which Michelle had kicked as she went up the stairs earlier. The pain had subsided, but it still ached. Pushing himself to his feet, he looked up the stairs, and with his heightened hearing, he could make out the sound of his lover, breathing in the bed they shared. Afraid, but driven, Richard climbed the stairs.

Luckily, Michelle had left the door open, otherwise he might have been doomed to spend the night on the floor outside his own bedroom.

Richard entered the dark room and was amazed that he could see as if the room was bathed in a pastel light. A light that came from everywhere, and nowhere. The bed was freshly made; something he remembered neither he nor Keith ever bothered with in their lives together. Keith was under the covers, on the far side of the bed. That was always where his husband slept, he remembered, since Richard was often up early to teach his morning classes. Keith’s breathing was slow and regular, and he had pulled the thick blanket that he always used, even in summer, up close to his chin.

Richard shivered, but not from a chill. Everything seemed one temperature now; neither warm nor cold. That felt strange to him, since he could smell odors with such devastating clarity, and hear sounds he was sure he wouldn’t have been able to hear when he was alive. And most surprisingly, he now saw everything in a kind of strange, soft, surreal technicolor, even in what should be darkness.

But it was his sense of touch that mystified him the most. Everything was hard now, and everything felt inert, lifeless, and neither warm nor cold.

Gently, he climbed onto the bed, which didn’t stir under his weight. The smooth blanket felt like the concrete of an undulating sidewalk. Stretching out at his lover’s side, the small wrinkles in the blanket reminded him of tree roots or rocks under his sleeping bag when they would go camping, and he struggled for a moment to find a comfortable position next to Keith’s sleeping form. He laid his head on the rock-like pillow next to Keith’s pudgy face and reached up to touch his lover’s cheek. It was the same blank temperature as the wall, the carpet, the bedspread. There was movement in that cheek, as Keith drew in and expelled his breath. He could even feel the stirring of the air on his face from each of Keith’s exhalations. But the air felt stale and lifeless, with no hint of his lover’s breath. It was just the movement of air.

It’s like everything of life is masked, Richard thought. Like whatever magic property makes things live and breathe has gone from the world.

That was close, but not quite right.

No, not the world. Just my world.

Everything felt no more real than images on a movie screen, or the animatronics at Disneyland. Although at Disneyland, you knew that the Pirates of the Caribbean were not real, and you were. Here it was just the opposite. Despite what his fingers told him, he knew Keith was very much alive. He was still in the world of the living, but that world no longer included Richard.

Keith’s face looked drawn, and there were circles under his eyes that made Richard think he had slept little these past (what did Michelle say?) three days. It was likely that he just collapsed from exhaustion tonight. Another wave of guilt flowed over Richard as he thought again how he’d abandoned the man he loved, in what must have been a horrible and violent way, if the gore downstairs was any indication.

Richard placed a hand on the covers, feeling Keith’s chest rise and fall under the thick blanket. He put his lips against his lover’s cheek, hoping to sense a bit of warmth and life. But all he felt was the same cold, hard, unforgiving texture of plaster that he felt on the carpet, the walls, and the bedsheets.

But despite the cold stoniness of it all, he could sense Keith’s heart beating. He could feel the pulse of it in his lips, and even hear it, if he concentrated. He put a hand on Keith’s soft, round belly, hard as stone beneath the plaster blanket. He had often slept that way, with one hand curled around and cradling his lover’s belly, feeling it swell and recede under his touch. Often, in his sleep, Keith would put his own hand over Richard’s and hold it there, as if feeling Richard’s hand on him grounded him in the world, and made it safe for him to sleep without care.

They’d spent no more than a handful of nights apart over the past decade. And every time a conference or a business trip had required they be separated, it was holding Keith while he slept that Richard longed for the most. The smell on the back of his neck. The solidity of his smooth back against him. The feel of his hips against the warm softness of Keith’s ass. The way Keith’s stubby feet twitched at night when he dreamed. Holding his lover while he slept had been one of Richard’s greatest joys, their bodies nestled together like puppies. Richard always felt like he was holding and guarding a sacred treasure. Even after ten years, there were nights that he would lie awake for hours, just blissfully awash in his love for the miraculous man in his arms.

Richard knew that there was living flesh somewhere under his hand, but that even if the blanket had been tossed aside and Keith had been stretched naked before him, he would no longer feel like living flesh. His lover’s body would be just more of the hard, cold, lifeless marble that made up his new world.

The image of his lover’s naked body left him yearning, the grief gathering like a fist in his chest.

An odd memory came to him, hanging itself on the line. It was of a play he and Keith had seen the first year they were together. The actor had said the line, “Ideally, a woman should feel like a hot water bottle full of Devonshire cream. But you, my dear, feel more like a paper sack stuffed with curtain rods.”

He remembered laughing with Keith after the play, and when he quoted that line verbatim in the car, Keith joined him in chorus. It had obviously struck them both so funny during the play that they had both memorized it instantly, and they laughed about it for the rest of the evening. Over the following years, they would often quote it to each other, usually to describe one of their few skinny friends.

He buried his face against Keith’s hard, unyielding neck, hoping to catch a trace of that scent he loved, which always clung to the back of Keith’s scalp. But there was nothing there. No smell of any kind.

How unfair is it that I can smell the Pine Sol and the summer pollen, but I can get no trace of the man I love?

Still, it was Keith. And despite the stone blanket, they were together. And Richard knew that his responsibility to protect the man he loved had not, could not, have come to an end.

The night dragged on, and Richard did not sleep. But it was almost as if he dreamed, as his mind struggled to reclaim more and more of his memories. He concentrated on trying to remember the nights with Keith, trips they had taken together, and quiet times they had shared. The wash of memories comforted Richard as the ornaments were hung on the line, one after another. Some, he thought, were memories that he was sure he had forgotten, even before he died. Perhaps one gift of being dead would be, eventually, total recall of his life. Although that could end up being more of a curse than a blessing.

Still, that last day remained nothing but a gap, with no emotions and no memories.

What could have happened? How could I have died? Life was so good for us both. We had been happier than nearly any couple I knew. How did it all end so suddenly?

Trying to remember that last day was elusive, and even painful. But pushing his mind forward, into that darkness, he found he could almost remember what came after. Like peering into a dark box, the memories after his death unfolded around him. He remembered that plunge into darkness, images tumbling over themselves, most of which made no sense at all…

The going was like smoke, dissipating in the wind. Or like a flag blown loose from its moorings, sucked relentlessly into a cloudy gray sky. The going was sudden and remembering it now, he couldn’t understand how he could both feel his mind going, and yet keep enough of it to watch it go. It was somewhat like falling asleep on a night of insomnia. One moment you were there, thinking about your life, planning your future, worried about every little thing that could go wrong. And the next moment you were gone, and none of it existed to call you back.

And with a rush of terror deep in his gut, he remembered that place. And he gave it a name…

“The Void,” he whispered.

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.

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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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