June 5, 9:57 pm
It only took forty-one seconds for the lights to come on. But by that time, six people were already dead. All but one were teenagers. Another dozen were wounded, with gashes ranging from minor on arms and legs and hands, to life-threatening wounds on the face, neck, and torso.
The weapon, the police would later divulge, was a simple six-inch Bowie knife, honed to a razor-sharp edge on both the top and bottom of the blade, with a beautiful wood handle, inlaid with silver filigree in the shape of a spreading tree. They found the sheath for the knife in the trash at the door of the theater. The knife itself they would find buried deep in the murderer; wedged so tightly into the roof of his mouth that the coroner would need a bone saw to remove it.
Whenever Bradley Seward could score a three-day leave pass from the base, he would take his wife and two girls into Salt Lake City for the weekend.
He knew acutely that life in the army town of Dugway, in the middle of the desert directly west of Salt Lake City, was unrelentingly dull. And if it bored him, he could only imagine how it gnawed at his girls. There was literally nothing within a thirty minute drive of the tiny town, which was intentionally situated in the middle of nowhere. And as long as he was on duty, his family was locked behind one of the most closely guarded security perimeters in the nation.
The little town had everything a family would need, from shopping to schools and recreation facilities. But no matter how big or well appointed the cage, Bradley knew, his little birds longed for the outside world.
Luckily, his wife Carol’s mother lived in Salt Lake City, and she loved having them visit. Her rules were pretty simple: They could stay for the weekend, but she expected them all to attend church services at the local Mormon ward house with her on Sunday morning. Bradley didn’t mind. Neither her nor his wife was particularly religious, but they both felt that the influence of their grandmother could do nothing but good for his girls. At ages ten and thirteen, they were at a good age to be exposed to a little religion. They could make their own choices about whether they wanted to stick with it when they got older.
Their long-weekend routine was pretty predictable. When they arrived in town on Friday night, they would drop off their bags and change their clothes at Nana’s house. Then they always made it a point to see a movie, usually in the theaters at the Valley Fair Mall, just five minutes from the house. If they could get out of Dugway at a reasonable hour, they could aim for either a 6:00 or 7:00 show, and be home in time for a late dinner with Grandma.
Unfortunately, today they had gotten a late start. They hadn’t been able to leave Dugway until well after 9:00, so they wouldn’t roll into town until almost 10:00. Bradley had suggested they skip the movie and go right to their Grandma’s house, but the girls, perhaps sensing an opening how only adolescent girls can, insisted there was plenty of time. Huddled over their phones on the way, they found a somewhat questionable horror film that had an 10:20 start time at the mall. They’d make it in time, if they went straight there.
He and his wife had looked at each other in the gathering twilight that filled the car, as they raced past Tooele and joined Interstate 80, heading East. On the one hand, they did their best to discourage their daughters from seeing any of that violent stuff. But secretly, they were both fans of scary movies. It was pretty common for them to find some cheesy horror movie on Netflix late at night, after the girls had gone to bed, and watch it in their bedroom with the volume low.
The movie the kids had picked would indeed be a scary one. But it seemed more psychological horror than slasher, and both he and his wife had said to each other that they would love to see it. So with a knowing glance at each other, they put up just enough fuss with the girls to make them think they’d lost the fight, and then they both gave in.
Bradley loved how in tune he and Carol were. They had devised and executed an entire strategy just by making eye contact, and the girls were none the wiser.
Carol called her mom to let her know they’d be arriving late tonight, and they headed to the theater.
The worst part of this, Bradley thought, was that he wouldn’t have time to change out of his uniform. He hated going out into civilian life in his Air Force issue, and it was way too hot to hide the telltale light blue shirt with the airman’s wings on the sleeve under a jacket. So he’d just have to deal with the sidelong hostile glances and worshipful stares (often in equal numbers), and get into his sweats when they got to Grandma’s house later.
They arrived at the movie theater with plenty of time to spare, bought their tickets, and went inside. They were in line outside the doors to their theater by 9:45. The earlier showing wouldn’t finish up for at least another ten minutes, so they just hung out in the hallway, waiting, listening to the muted sounds of a half dozen movies drifting together into the hallway. Fortunately, there were benches there, and he and Carol sat together, while the girls wandered, looking at movie posters and comparing screens on their cell phones.
To be honest, it felt great to sit. It had been a long week, with lots of hours spent in the cockpit. He loved making test flights over the Salt Flats, which was his primary job with the Air Force. But he was now over forty, and that was the point when the cramped seat and upper body exertion could do a number on a pilot’s back. He stretched, trying to relieve the ache.
Carol took his hand.
“Back still bothering you?”
He made a dramatic groan as he stretched, causing her to roll her eyes. “Only a little.” He brought his arms down and glanced down at his wife’s belly. “How is the little monster?”
She punched his arm, but only playfully. “Listen, mister. Do not start calling him that!”
“Oh, you’re so sure it’s a ‘him’ already? It’s only been six weeks, and you’re not even showing yet. Remember, the doctor said it’s going to be up to twenty weeks before they can figure out the little monster’s sex.”
“Just playing the odds, baby,” Carol said. “Don’t you think we’re due for a boy?”
He felt his cheeks flush a bit. She knew it was much more than just being due. As much as he loved his girls, Bradley longed for a son. And they were both pretty sure that whatever this child ended up being, it would be their last. With a ten-year age gap between their youngest girl and the new arrival, it wasn’t just his back that was beginning to show its age. Deciding to try for a third child was a tough one at their ages.
“When do you think we should tell the girls?” he asked, for probably the tenth time this week.
“Like I said. We’ll know when it’s time.”
“Right. But soon, I think.”
“Yeah, me too.” She squeezed his hand.
He was watching his girls, who had now sunk down to the carpet across the aisle, sitting cross-legged and totally engrossed in the cold glow of their own cell phones. He gestured at them to his wife.
“The only thing that fascinated me that much when I was their age was the porn stash I found in my dad’s sock drawer.” That was enough to get a laugh out of Carol. Seriously though, he thought to himself, it’s not the horror movies that’s going to fuck them up. It’s going to be goddamn Twitter and Facebook. He felt himself growing annoyed, for no reason at all.
“Honey, would you stop that!” Carol said, slapping his left hand away. He was only vaguely aware that he had, once again, been scratching at the back of his hand. Looking down, he saw that he’d left some red striations there this time.
“Dammit, I wish I knew what was causing this damn itch. It’s not getting any better.” For two days he had been complaining about an ache and an itch on the back of his right hand, which had gotten steadily worse. Now it was nearly driving him to distraction. Looking at his hand, it looked perfectly normal, except for the red marks from his scratching, and a pervasive ache that went from his knuckles to his wrist. There was no rash there, and flexing his fingers, it didn’t feel like he had injured it. Maybe it was just a sign of aging, but he hoped it would go away on its own. If it didn’t, he planned to make a doctor’s appointment when they got back to Dugway.
He dreaded going to see the doctor, because he thought he knew what it probably was—the early onset of arthritis. His mother had it, and by the time she was fifty, her hands had become claws. Even now he found it hard to look at her hands, gnarled and useless in her lap.
Carol stroked his hand, and he knew she was looking at the red marks there. And probably guessing what he was thinking.
“It hadn’t bothered me much on the drive,” he said with a clear edge of annoyance in his voice. “Hopefully, it will get better again fast so it doesn’t drive me crazy in the movie. Knock on wood.”
She dutifully rapped her knuckles against his forehead.
“Very funny,” he said, but couldn’t suppress his grin.
Whatever movie was showing in the theater across the aisle finished up, and the doors swung open. It must have been a comedy, because everybody was laughing and clearly in an excellent mood as they streamed thickly into the corridor. Bradley and Carol watched the passing throng, which for a moment, cut off their view of their daughters against the far wall. Bradley watched the crowd, feeling a vague annoyance at all their smiling faces.
Why am I so irritable?
Without realizing he was doing it, he pulled his hand away from Carol. The itch was so maddening now…
Through the double doors of the theater, someone emerged that Bradley thought looked out of place. He was tall, but thin and muscular, with a crew cut and what he had long called a “porn ’stache”. And unlike the rest of the families, he was not dressed in weekend casual attire, but in a camouflage vest and orange sweat pants that made him look more like he was ready to head out on the deer hunt, rather than into the suburban parking lot. He was clearly the father of two boys, who bounced against each other and the rest of the crowd, heading toward the bathrooms. But what was stranger, Bradley could see the outline of what looked like a hunting knife, stashed in an inside pocket of his vest.
Bradley didn’t even have time to really register how out of place this hunter-guy looked, before the itching started on the back of his hand, even worse than before.
“God damn it,” he said to Carol. She turned to look at him, and they locked eyes for a second. Carol started to speak, but then didn’t.
Later she’d tell the investigators that something in her husband’s eyes had instantly changed in that one or two seconds that she looked at him. He was scratching his right hand, looking annoyed and frustrated. And then, in the next instant, his face dropped, his eyes clouded, and without a word, he rose from the bench and headed into the chattering crowd of kids and adults, all jostling together as they worked their way down the hallway.
As best as the police could reconstruct it later, Bradley walked immediately down the hallway, no more than twenty feet, to where Stanley Friedman had stood, trying to corral his two young boys. He told the police that “they were antsy as hell” after thirty-six ounces of sugary soda each, and both desperately needed the boy’s restroom, so he was distracted when it happened. With a level of dexterity that must have been masterful, Bradley brushed up against the hunter’s right side, and slipped a hand inside his camouflage vest to where he had the bowie knife stashed in a home made sheath under his arm.
If Stanley Friedman had felt Bradley reach into his vest, he would have broken the pilot’s nose. And not just because he was deathly afraid of any man touching him (which he was), but because the knife he was carrying was his most prized possession. It was an early Bowie knife in a hand-tooled leather sheath. The sheath he had made when he was in high school, but the knife itself had been passed down in his family through at least four generations. It was a beautiful piece, with a spreading tree etched in silver filigree into the wooden handle, and a roughly etched letter “D” still visible on the blade, despite years of wear and sharpening.
He knew the knife was valuable, and that it should have been at home in his collector’s case, with his Civil War memorabilia. But he had never been able to resist carrying it when he and his sons went out bushwhacking in the Wasatch, which is where they had been that morning.
When asked by investigators why Mr. Friedman had brought a knife into the theater, he somewhat weakly explained that he’d simply forgotten it was there, and when he had discovered it during the movie, he had considered running it out to the car. But he had decided against it, since both his boys were in one of those moods that required constant supervision.
The truth was, Friedman enjoyed carrying the heavy blade under his jacket. You never knew when it might come in handy against a terrorist or Antifa. And something about the feel of the blade next to his ribcage gave him a thrill that was almost sexual. Like it had a personality of its own, and it wanted to be close to his heart.
No one in the crowd noticed Bradley Seward carrying the naked blade, as he pressed against the current of humanity that was filing out of the theatre down the hall. Twenty paces down, he slipped out of the departing crowd, through a thick blackout curtain, and into the darkness of another theater.
On the screen were two frightened teenagers, cowering in the dark in their wrecked car. One was trying to free the other from the jammed seat belt when the masked killer thrust his arm into the car and grabbed her by the hair. The audience screamed in unison, and Bradley Seward plunged his knife into the neck of seventeen-year-old Mannie Smith, killing him instantly, and spraying them both with blood in the dark theater. The boy’s girlfriend reported that at first she believed that someone behind her had spilled their soda over her shoulder, until she realized the liquid was hot, and tasted the coppery spray on her lips. She turned to her boyfriend to find his head lolling backwards at an impossible angle, and the blood pumping out in pulses down the front of his shirt. The girl didn’t even see Bradley, who had gone up the aisle behind them. She screamed, but in those first few seconds, it meant little in the general screaming of the crowd watching the climax of the movie.
Bradley turned to his left and into row seven. He began working his way down the entire row, hacking and slashing as he went. Theatergoers who at first glared at him and then stood up to let him pass only gave Bradley a better angle with his knife.
He gutted a fourteen-year-old girl that had sneaked into the theater with some older friends, and severed three fingers from a twenty-five-year-old college graduate student who saw what was happening too late, and put his hand up to protect his face. He would never see out of his right eye again after that night.
By the time Bradley reached the middle of the aisle, he had only been in the theater for sixteen seconds. In that time he had mortally wounded three people and injured five more. By this point the audience was in a frenzy, as those in the rows looking down on Bradley’s work realized that something beyond the usual screams of fright during a horror movie were coming from below them.
Bradley’s next victim was almost an accident. As he slashed at a group of boys who saw him coming and launched buckets of popcorn at him, another girl in the row ahead lost her balance and fell toward Bradley, striking him so hard that his knife penetrated all the way through her ribs and into her heart, killing her instantly. The power of the blow also caused Bradley’s hand to slip past the hilt of the knife, and the razor sharp lower blade severed one of his own fingers.
At the twenty-three second mark, Bradley was hit from behind by Mark Simpson, age seventeen, who had glimpsed the bloody knife in a rare flash of light from the murky screen. He’d reacted instantly and used his football linebacker skills to take Bradley down. The impact sent them both flying forward over a row of quickly emptying seats, and into the aisle below. For several seconds the theater erupted in chaos, and Mark Simpson started screaming “Grab Him! Grab Him!” over the din of real and imagined horrors. To their credit, several tried, but Bradley tossed them all off with surprising ease, as he climbed back to his feet. None of his attackers later died, but Bradley managed to slash deep wounds into six more people, and then end the life of his last victim, an eighteen-year-old honor student who was indulging his younger brother’s obsessive need for horror films. The young man was scheduled to enroll in a College back east at the end of the summer.
At the thirty-nine second mark, the chorus of screams had turned into a jumble of voices yelling, “Turn on the lights! Turn on the fucking lights!” And the two exit ramps on either side of the theater had become clogged with fleeing bodies.
The police later credited the projectionist for his quick response. He was watching the audience through the narrow portal at the back of the theater, and at first he thought a fistfight had broken out between some boys. But he quickly realized that something very wrong was happening in his theater. In a single motion, he killed the projector and brought up the lights in the auditorium. It had been forty-one seconds.
Bradley Seward was in the twelfth row of the now brightly lit theater. He stood up, covered with blood and holding the dripping six-inch blade at his eyebrows, as if to shield his eyes from the fluorescent light. The remaining audience recoiled from him like ducks fleeing an alligator in a pond. The injured and survivors boiled toward the exits. In less than twenty seconds, only the dead and a few badly injured remained, as the last of the audience streamed out of the theater.
The projectionist, now watching from the booth, said that Bradley appeared incredibly calm. He stood there in the middle of row twelve for a few seconds before sinking onto the back of a seat from the row below. The projectionist watched as he calmly scratched the back of his hand with the knife until blood oozed around the blade. He then put the tip of the double-edged blade against the underside of his chin and began to hammer it home with the heel of his four-fingered hand.
The projectionist said he didn’t make a sound, and didn’t appear to feel any pain. He just kept hammering away with a relentless fury until the blade had disappeared completely into his chin, pushing up through blood and palate until the tip tickled his brain. Blood was pouring in waves down his shirt. The beautiful wood handle of the knife remained strangely unbloodied, the silver filigree or the carved tree shining in the fluorescent light. The blood of his victims had already darkened on Bradley’s shirt. His own blood, by contrast, seemed almost luminescent as it continued to flow from his quickly dying body.
As the projectionist watched, Bradley turned and collapsed backwards into a seat, as if he was ready for the movie to begin.
Silence always punctuates the bloodiest moments.
When unexpected violence erupts onto the stage of the living, there is always that moment afterward that feels as if the universe is taking stock. It’s the moment after a breath, the pause before the next inhalation. It’s the instant of time when the universe looks at itself and says yes, this thing has happened. This is our universe, full of blood and horror and suffering. This is the legacy of created beings. Perhaps there are uncreated and eternal beings whose lives unfold in light and glory, but for created beings, there will always be moments of darkness and horror, and the universe has long learned that when those moments erupt, and then are past, there must be a moment of silence to mark their passing. A moment to reset the clock of the world.
It is in that moment that the universe must decide anew, every time, that yes, we will still go on.
As Bradley Seward’s life flickered, and the last pulses of blood on his shirt dwindled to a trickle, the theater was left in an eerie silence. As if it were a world away, the sounds of the other movies in the complex clicked off, one after another. A half dozen victims, too wounded to escape, lay bleeding in the aisles and seats around Bradley. Two of these would die in the next few minutes, and finally, the last would be a girl who died in the parking lot, bringing the death toll to nine.
The dead lay still. The wounded stared at each other wide-eyed, or just moaned in their own private agonies. A coppery tang of blood filled the air, and Bradley Seward drew in and held what would be his last breath.
The universe too held its breath. It paused for a moment in silence and took in the bloody tableau of the theater. Dimly, through the silence, a tiny shrill police siren, and the sound of panic and tumult from the lobby, signified that the universe had taken another breath, and was ready to go on.
Before Bradley released his last breath, she stepped from him, as if she was rising to take a bow.
No one in the theater could see her—not that they were looking at that point. By the time she had stepped from Bradley, everyone left in the theater was too busy with their own process of dying, or struggling to survive.
But then there was the little girl.
Stepping to the side, she turned and stood over Bradley. She was perhaps ten, or perhaps even younger. And unlike everyone else who remained in the theater, her dress was bright, the color of luminous cream. It had long sleeves with silver rhinestones around the neck and cuffs, and was of a style that would have looked better in a turn of the century western portrait. Compared to the horror show around her, it was remarkable that her dress looked so clean. But a closer inspection would reveal that the red pattern on the chest was not part of the embroidery. It was blood, as if she had suffered a nose bleed an hour before and had not yet gone home to change.
She looked very regal and exhilarated, as if she had just stepped from a little girl’s tea party, or her first communion.
Without a word, she bent over Bradley Seward’s dying body and squinted. The knife handle that protruded under his chin looked strangely familiar to her, and she traced the silver filigree of the tree branches with her finger, trying to unearth a memory that wouldn’t come.
Bradley’s face was losing all color, and she tore her eyes from the knife to watch. She didn’t want to miss his last breath. It was always her favorite. She reached up one long finger and touched him lightly on the nose.
“Boop!” she said, and laughed.
Bradley let out his last breath, and died.
Slowly, the little girl began to dance, twirling up and down each of the aisles in turn. She stepped over the dead bodies in the lower aisles. She touched the hair of one wounded girl as she waltzed by, but she didn’t linger. The crying and moaning only confused her, for this wasn’t a day for sadness. It was a day for dancing and thanking God for all his love. She hoped God was pleased with her, but she’d know soon enough.
She kept dancing as the police arrived, guns drawn, swarming into the theater from both sides. She danced around them as they sounded the all clear, and she danced as the paramedics rushed in with their stretchers and cases.
But by this point, the little girl had become bored with the whole thing. She stopped once more to look at her handiwork. A burly cop held a gun on Bradley’s lifeless body, while another was using his shirt to staunch the bleeding of a young girl two rows down. Ignoring the cops, she stroked Bradley’s hair, which felt as coarse to her as the hair on a marble statue. She knew he was gone, but if she had pleased God, perhaps he’d be back.
She only had one angel. Being blessed with a second would be proof that God truly loved her.
“Come back to me, my dear,” she said, and smoothed the wrinkles of her dress.
Where have I seen that knife? she wondered, bending down to look at it again. But movement from the corner of her eye caused her to jerk upright.
Turning, it did not surprise her to see a boy step through the screen at the front of the theater. At first, it was as if his appearance was just a trick of light and shadow. He stood silhouetted there in the harsh fluorescent light, taking in the scene before him. Even from here, she could see the pathetic tears forming in his eyes.
The boy was about fifteen. He had a battered straw cowboy hat in his hands, and bare feet. He had rough linen pants with a drawstring, and one leg cut short well above his bare foot. His shirt was tan and tattered.
The little girl practically hissed at the boy as she fled the theater, disappearing down the same aisle by which Bradley had entered, just minutes earlier.
In the parking lot, which was already a chaos of panicked parents and reporters arriving on the scene, God spoke to her. As she listened to His words, she hugged herself with delight, doing her best to ignore the hated boy that had followed her from the theater, and now stood watching her, surrounded by the firefighters and police officers, and the whirling red and blue lights of the now constantly arriving emergency vehicles. The lights played off his face, which was drawn in sadness and horror. She pushed the boy’s face out of her mind, and just listened to God.
At her feet was a young girl, her throat slit raggedly. She was bleeding out in the arms of her boyfriend, who had carried her from the theater. When she died, it would make her the ninth and last person to lose their lives that night at Valley Fair Mall. Another young girl sat next to the wounded pair, holding the hand of the dying girl. Her boyfriend sat on the curb nearby, his head in his bloody hands.
The boy with the straw hat was with them now. He knelt by the dying girl and wept. The little girl in the white dress sneered at him in disgust.
Looking into the eyes of the little girl, the boy spoke.
“Look at her, Mattie! She looks just like your sister. She looks just like Frances!”
Mattie stared at the boy with inexpressible hatred. And then she fled.
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.