June 5, 9:50 pm
Richard came out of his memories with a scream that dwindled into a strangled whimper. Keith still slept deeply, and without Richard to hold him, he had rolled onto his back. As he regained his composure, Richard felt the younger man’s chest rising and falling under his hand. But that hand was trembling, and it was only with an effort that he made it stop. His lips formed the words again.
His own voice was comforting in its familiarity. Everything else in his world was either a surreal horror show or a mass of confusion. But his voice sounded to him exactly as it always had. And it reminded him he was once Richard Pratt, Vice-chair of the Linguistics Department of the University of Utah. That he had once been an aging man with a devoted boyfriend with whom he had lived for more than a decade. His voice was a tiny reminder that, for everything he had lost, he was still himself.
The trembling slowed, then stopped. And as it did, a kind of steely and analytical frame slipped over Richard’s mind. It was the same frame that had served him so well throughout his academic career. With any luck, he hoped, it would help him through this.
Whatever “this” was.
So what happens now? Is this it? Does this just go on forever?
The thought was terrifying, and his weary mind was not ready to comprehend the meaning of “forever.” But on the other hand, he remembered the darkness and terror of the Void, and he had no desire to go back into it, if that was his only other option. He would do anything to avoid that terror again, especially since, at some deep level, he felt it calling to him, as if the universe was appalled at his interrupted journey.
But was the alternative any less terrifying? What if there was no going forward, and also no going back? What if he was hopelessly stranded here in this limbo, not alive and yet also not dead? Could that possibly last forever? There was something wrong and something strangely… out of balance in that possibility. Richard had never been a religious man, but that prospect of being stuck between life and death belied any notion of divinity or justice he had ever been taught. It wasn’t that he ever expected anything of the afterlife. He had never believed there was a heaven or hell. No, death was supposed to be a hard stop. You lived your life, for good or bad, and in the end, you just flickered out, like the dead stub of an old and unattended candle.
He startled himself. There was a memory there, and he excavated it:
He and Keith were lying in this very bed on a late night, perhaps three years ago. It was after returning from the funeral of a friend. Andre was a long-term survivor of HIV, and his complex drug cocktails had kept the disease at bay for over thirty years. Long enough for him to die peacefully in his sleep from heart disease at sixty-two. After the funeral that night, in the dark bedroom, their conversation meandered to the philosophical. They had often talked about death, and Keith had never subscribed to Richard’s rather stark and unyielding view that nothing survived the death of the body. Keith believed that something had to come next, after death, but he was unsure what it could be. Richard had pressed back against what he saw as Keith’s naïve and romantic notions of an afterlife, trying to get him to look at it scientifically.
“No Baby Bear,” he had said. “I’m afraid I don’t buy it. I think that death is just the end. There is no heaven or hell, no nirvana, and no coming back on the Buddhist wheel. We just stop. It’s like a crystal of salt dissolving back into the ocean. The ocean may birth other crystals, but once one dissolves, that one is gone forever. So we’d better grab everything we can in this life while we have it…”
He’d punctuated that comment by wrapping his hand around Keith’s balls and giving them a playful tug.
Keith just smiled in a way that Richard had thought was a bit condescending. But he had kissed Richard in the dark of their bedroom and then folded himself into his lover’s arms. He remembered feeling Keith’s soft body against his own, the passion growing between them as it so often did, especially in the times of trial or uncertainty. Making love was always the best antidote to fear of the unknown. In the throes of passion, neither of them wasted their time with thoughts of death. When you had the living and breathing body of someone you loved against you and inside you, it truly felt like life could go on forever.
Hanging that ornament of memory on the line, he thought how naïve he had been. He had expected that death would be nothing other than emptiness and non-existence. But now he had an almost physical sense of death that was far worse than just emptiness. This new death was full of terror and loss and unendurable, existential pain. It was the Void, gleefully ripping your soul apart, forever. It was watching as everything you loved was stripped away—every memory, every sense of yourself, and eventually, even the part that witnessed and suffered.
And then… This. Whatever this was… This strange in-between world where your loss is even more acute, because everything you lost manifests forever before your eyes in the faces of the people you loved, and in recovered memories so sharp that they slice to the bone.
The terror was that there would never again be a going forward. Wasn’t that, in its own way, even more terrifying than the emptiness of the Void?
He looked at the clock on Keith’s nightstand. It was only just after 10 pm. Eternity spun out in front of him like an endless dream, and it all played out in his mind: Watching Keith age. Perhaps watching him fall in love again. Or worse, seeing him so damaged that he never could. Then watching him decline and die, and complete his journey to endless solitude, leaving Richard even more alone.
10 pm. It was hard to be precise, but he figured he had only been back a little more than an hour.
On the suburban street, he heard someone laughing, and then the sound of a dog barking even further away.
Hearing a noise in the hall behind him, Richard looked over his shoulder, and saw that Michelle was there in the doorway. He watched her, watching Keith, and saw the tears in her eyes. Michelle had always loved Keith. Probably been “in love” with him as much as with her own husband. Looking at her now, he felt both grateful and jealous, in equal measures. He was not yet ready to give up as Keith’s primary protector and guardian. It had been his job for too long. But for now, he was glad she was there.
Before he could resolve that conflict in his mind, Michelle tiptoed downstairs. A few minutes later, he heard the click of the door as she let herself out.
He was alone in the house with his sleeping lover. His mind still full of questions with no answers.
Despite the hardness of the covers, and the discomfort it caused, Richard stayed next to Keith, atop the blankets, one arm draped over him. They lay face to face, almost nose to nose. From time to time, he would kiss those cold stone lips, willing this nightmare to be over. Willing Keith to open his eyes and smile at him with that warmth that always melted his heart.
Keith did not stir. The clocked ticked away the next minutes of his new eternity.
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.