June 5, 10:30 pm
Richard wondered if the dead ever felt weary, or sleepy. Or (as the saying went) “dead to the world.”
He wanted to feel tired. Considering all he had been through, he should feel tired. But lying next to Keith, the night felt longer than any in his life, and he had never felt so awake. Staring at his sleeping lover, he instinctively knew that he had slept his last night. For as long as this lasted, whatever this was, he knew he would be awake and alert.
Had such a strange condition befallen him in his life, he would have counted it a blessing. How amazing to have eight extra hours a day for reading, or friends, or travel! How he could have thrived in a life suddenly made a third longer by losing the need to sleep. But now, it appeared that he would bear silent witness to the life and death of the man he loved, in a world that he could never be a part of again. Would never sleeping be a blessing? Or would it just prolong and intensify the pain and the loss that he must endure?
Twice during the evening he felt Keith’s breath hitch in his chest, and Richard knew his lover was crying in his sleep; tortured by a dream or a memory, or perhaps the nightmarish reliving of Richard’s death. He touched the tear that emerged from Keith’s closed eye, and it was like a bead of glass under his ghostly finger.
Even though Richard was the one that had died, he knew that the impact on Keith’s world would be as devastating as it was on his own. If the tables had been turned, Keith’s death would have destroyed him as surely as any bullet. The thought made him shiver in the dark. Richard played out in his mind the grotesque picture show of Keith smiling and laughing and reaching for his hand one second and then looking shocked as half his head disappeared in a spray of blood the next. What would witnessing such a thing do to him? Could he even survive it with his mind intact? He allowed that movie to play just once. Any more, he knew, and he would not only be awake for an eternity, but lost in despair as well. What Keith had endured the past few days was simply beyond comprehension, and Richard, for one, was glad to let it stay that way.
So much grief lay with him in their bed, now cold and distant. So much despair behind his lover’s dreaming eyes. Eyes that would open with the dawn to what Keith would see as an empty room.
Richard balled his right hand into a fist and curled it tightly against Keith’s chest. He tried to will Keith to reach up, grasp his hand and clasp it against his heart—as he had so often done before. He concentrated and visualized Keith reaching for him. But the smaller man just shivered, and his hands gripped and released the sheets in his sleep. Another tear crept down Keith’s cheek and it was absorbed by his pillow.
Richard couldn’t lay with Keith very long. It was like lying on a cobblestone street, and soon, every motion aggravated his aching body. Clearly, there was no comfort or ease in death. When he could stand it no longer, Richard sat up. Moving to the edge of the bed, he forced himself to turn away.
The clock on the bedside table read 10:40. At this time of night, the room should seem dark and gloomy, but Richard could make out every detail. It wasn’t like he could see it all exactly. Somehow he could perceive not only what was in front of him but also what was behind his back. It was more like he felt the room, or that he was such a part of it, that he couldn’t tell the difference between his own body and the knickknacks on the nightstand.
But that wasn’t quite right, either.
Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes, Richard was relieved to find the world blocked out. The blankness behind his eyelids gave him some relief from the painful memories that were steeped into every object in this room. His memories actually seemed sharper now, more vivid than those same memories when he was alive. They had become accessible and tangible and real in a way that made them feel almost alive.
So this is how death tortures us, he thought. Painfully vivid memories of things we have lost forever. Painful awareness of exactly how beautiful life was. And a constant reminder that it is forever gone.
He opened his eyes and looked around the room once again. Everything was still so clear, almost glowing. The nighttime allowed him to see hidden life pulsating in things that he thought were inanimate: The teddy bear he had as a child. The framed photo of him and Keith hiking the Grand Canyon. The bust of Shakespeare that they bought when they visited the Globe theater in England. The book of Sanskrit poetry that he knew he would never finish, lying still on his nightstand.
Strangely, looking at his own hands, they seemed less alive than the knickknacks on the dresser.
Rising from the bed, he walked around the room, touching things, trying to open drawers and failing, trying to pick up framed photos, and failing. Trying to part the curtains to get a glimpse of the outside street… and failing. Each immovable object was a memory, and each touch flooded his mind with raw emotions that were on fire, like nests of angry hornets.
As painful as they were, Richard held fast to those memories. Especially those with Keith. The love they shared had been glorious. It still was glorious. A glorious, stinging, open wound that he felt in every cell of his body. Gazing at Keith’s huddled form there on the bed produced a longing both universal and overwhelming. He looked at the weariness on Keith’s face as he slept and felt an aching tenderness.
Ten years, he thought. We were together more than ten years.
And with that, the last of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. The last of the Christmas ornaments melted together into one, and it was called The Life of Richard Pratt.
He remembered it all. Every moment he and Keith had shared in vivid, painful detail. Their meeting, their years together, their marriage… It was all there. He could walk it like a tightrope, from the moment they met until…
Yes, that was the only flaw. There was still an important piece missing from the puzzle. A piece that was still in the box, or perhaps still on the factory floor somewhere far away. That missing piece gnawed at him, vividly stark because everything else has become so clear.
The one thing he couldn’t remember was the night he died.
It was not the dying itself, which he now recalled clearly as a crash, an explosion of red, a feeling of falling, and Keith’s face screaming his name in horror. He remembered dying, and that endless fall into the terror of the Void. He couldn’t linger in that memory, because it was too painful.
But what happened in the hours before? What happened in this house, in the final hours of my life?
That penultimate puzzle piece was nowhere to be found.
As a professor, Richard had learned a great deal of mental discipline. During a writing session or a preparation for a class, he had always compartmentalized his thinking and focused his mind on the task at hand. But now, he realized, that skill would be put to the test. Taking a deep breath, he tried to shut down his inner monologue and focus.
What do I really know? What are the cold, hard facts about this world as a ghost?
To his surprise, he realized that he already knew a great deal. Some things he just felt through intuition. He just knew, for instance, that he would no longer sleep, no longer feel tired. He also knew, in a similar way, that these bloody clothes would always be a part of him now. He would wear this blood splattered, gray, University of Utah hoodie forever, along with his green flannel pajama bottoms and thick blue wool socks. He touched his face, and realized that the heavy Alan Ginsberg glasses he always wore were gone, and he somehow knew that they must have been thrown from his face the second he had been shot.
Not being on my face when I died, I no longer have them, he thought.
These were things he just knew, intuitively. But there were also things he had learned in his short time back among the living. For instance, and perhaps most disconcerting, was the strange, hard texture of everything. And then there was the way that the world of the living could still impact his ghost body. He remembered Michelle’s foot knocking his hand out of the way like it was a feather, as she passed by his seat at the bottom of the stairs.
Perhaps, he thought, I can learn some more through experimentation…
He looked at the sharp corner of the nightstand. He’d banged his arm on it many times, getting in and out of bed over the years. Slowly, he reached to his right and pushed his palm into the corner, until he felt a sharp pain. It felt exactly as it would have felt if he was alive. Taking a deep breath, he pushed even harder, and the pain exploded through his hand and up his arm. Grinding his teeth, he kept pushing, until he had to pull back, at the limit of his endurance, and well past the point of injury. Hoping to see blood, he lifted his palm.
It was unmarked. The pain, already fading.
He tried again, pushing his hand even harder this time, literally pushing until the pain caused him to cry out.
His hand remained pink and soft, just as he remembered it in life. The hand of a professor whose most strenuous daily work was turning the pages of a book, or diagramming a sentence of Sanskrit on a chalkboard.
Somehow, the pain was comforting. As it faded, he thought he could understand how some people could become addicted to pain, and the often quoted refrain of “cutters” who carved long lines into their arms with razor blades: “It’s the only thing that makes me feel alive.”
How true that was. As the pain faded, it left behind an essential thrill, like a ghostly echo of all his body used to be able to do. The cruelest illusion in his new world was that his flesh could still feel so alive. In this world, the pain and comfort of his own body would be all he would ever know. He would never again feel the living flesh of another.
The longing for Keith became so great that it was like a burning poker in his chest. He tried once again to hold him, and again felt the strange, unforgiving texture of the sheets, like a bed of cement and velcro. With a pathetic desire, he tried to reach a hand under Keith’s tightly held blanket, hoping to touch his naked chest. It was like trying to insert his hands between layers of cold, cast steel. He buried his face against the plaster back of Keith’s head. There was no longer a smell there. No longer the bitter tang of sweat, or the sweet musk he remembered. Still, he was surprised to see his body responding to Keith’s presence in the way it always did. He reached a hand beneath the band of his pajamas, which parted easily from his waist. Yes, that part of him still worked. He pulled his hand back as if burned.
That may be the cruelest thing of all.
Lying with his eyes closed, and one hand on Keith’s forearm, it surprised Richard to feel a strange sense of peace growing inside him. Keith was still alive, and that was no minor miracle. That bullet could have killed them both. And for all that he had lost, he still had this: He could still lie with Keith as he slept. He could still watch over him, for however many decades they had left. Maybe someday, when Keith had healed from this, Richard could even see him laugh again. Maybe see him happy. Maybe even see him… love.
He felt tears form in his eyes, and without thinking, wiped them away. He was surprised to see his fingers wet with the tears. They felt so normal…
Curious, he let one tear gather, break free of his eyes, and then fall from the tip of his nose, just an inch over the face of his sleeping lover. He watched it fall, and instantly disappear without a trace, as it left his body. No tear reached Keith’s sleeping cheek.
So, weeping and pain, Richard thought. I still have those two things. And desire…
Covering his face with his hands, he rolled tightly against Keith’s body, and spoke aloud.
“I’ll stay with you, Baby Bear. I have nowhere else to be.”
He rested a hand on his lover’s chest, feeling it rise and fall, and closed his eyes to block out the rest of the world.
Yes, I can stay with him. I can always just stay with him. And maybe that will be enough.
But in his mind there was another face from his past, pushing its way to the surface. He had once told someone else that he would always be with him, that he would never abandon him. And when it came time to make good on that promise many years ago, he had failed.
He saw that face and wished he could turn away. But the memory was inside his head; a part of that perfect recall that he now knew would be both a blessing and a curse. The face was younger than Keith. Richard remembered that, yes, he had been just eighteen.
He was so young, the year he died.
It used to seem so long ago, but now, everything felt like yesterday. The face jeered and taunted him, as if it enjoyed seeing his suffering. With an effort, Richard pushed the angry, leering face out of his mind. It was the worst memory of his life, and that it would flood back on him now seemed like a cruel trick of fate.
Looking at Keith, he spoke aloud again.
“Baby Bear, I promise. I will not abandon you the way I abandoned Justin.”
But in his heart, he knew he already had.
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.