June 5, 10:41 pm
“Look at her, Mattie! She looks just like your sister. She looks just like Frances!”
Billy was weeping in the mall parking lot, his tears disappearing into nothingness as they fell from his eyes. The brutally stabbed and slashed girl was dead now. Her moaning boyfriend, covered in blood and holding her, was in shock, rocking the body back and forth in his arms. The other girl, who may have been her best friend, was strangely silent, her face a mask of disbelief that Billy knew would soon crumble as the reality of the loss settled over her.
Billy had seen both the living and the dead brought low by despair and loss for over a hundred and fifty years. He had learned that loss is as much a consequence of being human as breath. Or as death.
Mattie watched him, her face an unreadable mask. Only her narrow, cold eyes betrayed the hatred that consumed her. Billy knew it was the same disgust that the little girl had directed toward him since her own return from the Vastness. It was a hatred he had never understood, fueled by her conversations with the one she mistakenly called God. That dark voice that once spoke to him as well.
The police were arriving quickly, but a reporter had somehow beaten most of them to the parking lot. The cameraman with her seemed stunned, but the reporter was focused. She made a beeline for the girl, who was staring blankly at her dead friend. Gently, she said, “Miss, my name is Morgan Jensen, and I’m a reporter with KUTV. Would you be willing to talk for a moment about what happened?” The reporter was young, pretty, and blond; like so many of them were now.
To Billy’s surprise, the girl nodded, and with a hand that supported her elbow, the reporter walked her off to the side, making sure the camera angle would not show her dead friend behind them.
Billy arose, and walked to where Mattie was standing, off to the side of the chaos. As he got closer, he saw the blank malevolence on her face melt into a dark smile. There was pride in her face now. Pride at what she had done. Billy expected her to run away from him, as she always did.
He had been following her off and on, usually at a distance, for more years than he could count. There had been decades at a time that she had not even allowed him to approach her, or he had chosen not to try. But he had watched her helplessly as she fell under the sway of the being that she thought of as God, but the one Tuilla had told him was called the Wanderer.
Under his sway, Billy had seen Mattie commit many small cruelties, and he suspected she had done far more than he knew. But never had he seen her commit murder.
“Princess, talk to me,” Billy said, sinking to his knees at her feet. She was still such a little girl. She had to tilt her head down to stare at Billy with eyes that were glowing brighter with hatred with every passing second.
Billy tried to speak to her, but there seemed so little he could say, in the wake of such a devastating act. Finally, he found some words.
“Did… he make you do this?”
Her eyes narrowed. “My God doesn’t make me do anything, Billy Travers.” She actually took a step toward him, which he couldn’t remember her doing for more than a century. “I do what God wants because he loves me. And because I love him.”
Mattie had not lost the cadence in her voice of the little girl she used to be. The boy Billy had been in 1857 was long gone, having disappeared quickly after his return to the Hereafter. Even though his body still looked like the same fifteen-year-old, so much had happened to him since then. All of that had changed him. Why was Mattie still the same little girl he remembered from the prairies?
“Mattie, please look at that dead girl. Doesn’t she look like Frances? Do you even remember your sister Frances? Do you remember how much she loved you? Do you remember how you used to laugh when I called you ‘Princess’?”
A strange expression blossomed on Mattie’s face, and she rolled her eyes like a little girl exasperated with the cluelessness of adults. “I only laughed at you because you are a ridiculous, silly thing. And my sister never loved you. She thought you were a disgusting little boy. She said it to me all the time. ‘Billy Travers is so disgusting. I wish he’d leave me alone.’ I think she was glad when we got to Salt Lake City and found out you were dead.”
The words cut through Billy in a way that he didn’t expect, even though he knew they weren’t true. Of course, Mattie was lying. She did that now. She could say or do anything now that she was under the thrall of her God. Maybe she wasn’t even Mattie any longer.
“Did he tell you to say that, Mattie? Are lies like that the things that your God tells you to say?”
“He’s not my God, you horrible boy. He is God. The only God. And he doesn’t care about you one way or another. Why would he talk to me about someone like you? He thinks you’re…” She seemed to be searching for the right word, and when she found it, he suspected the Wanderer had put it there. “He thinks you’re pathetic.”
Is she talking to him, even now? Her eyes had lost their focus, and he wondered if she was fully there with him. Was her God looking through her eyes, seeing and absorbing everything Mattie saw? Billy tried to bring her attention back.
“Look at the girl, Mattie. Don’t listen to him. Listen to me. Remember your sister! Remember what happened to her!” His throat tightened. “Remember that she loved you. Remember that she loved us both…”
Mattie said nothing. But her eyes lost even more focus. Whatever was happening in her mind now, the voice that was speaking to her was far more demanding than his own.
“Mattie, listen to me. That isn’t God you’re talking to. I know he has been telling you to be cruel, but I never believed he could make you do something like… this. Mattie, you are not a bad girl. He’s making you into something evil.”
He was saying it with a conviction that he didn’t really feel. For, in truth, he had always known that something was deeply flawed in the little girl he once called Princess. He had been tracking and staying with Mattie constantly these past years, as she had fallen further and further under the spell of her God. He had tried to convince her to reject that voice, as he had done. But there was nothing he could do. He was helpless, looking into her dead eyes, and seeing that she was so far beyond him.
A chill ran down his spine. Mattie was not the only one who was listening to the Wanderer. The knowledge that there were more of the dead who had fallen under this evil spell, and that they could each commit atrocities like he had witnessed here, left him shaking.
Suddenly Mattie’s face changed, and instead of the blank expression, he glimpsed, just for a moment, the little girl he remembered. But seeing that innocence intoxicated by violence made Billy wonder if that darkness had not been in Mattie since the beginning.
“Oh, you are such a silly boy,” she said, launching into a skipping dance step. She circled him, laughing and chanting. “Silly boy, silly, silly, silly boy!”
He watched her, dumbfounded, until she suddenly stopped directly in front of him, her face just inches from his. And what she said sounded less like her voice, and more like the one that he pushed from his mind years ago.
“Leave her alone, Billy Travers.”
He shrank back, bringing his hands up unconsciously, as if he was preparing to ward off a blow.
“Her?” he asked.
“Me!” she screeched. “Leave me alone, you horrible, rotten, evil boy! I hate you! God hates you! Stop following me and leave me alone. You go find God and ask him to forgive you! But I bet he won’t. Because you’re bad and stupid and God hates you hates you hates you! He doesn’t want you to be with us when we go to the Ocean together!” Her face had gone beet red, and Billy just stared at her dumbfounded.
With no warning, she turned and ran. But she stopped a dozen feet away. She stood now among a group of police officers and the just arriving crew of an ambulance. The swirling lights of the squad cars and emergency vehicles were all around them now, bathing them in a kaleidoscope of dancing colors. The paramedics rushed past Mattie, directly at Billy, and he had to step aside to let them pass. He knew they were rushing to the dead girl, not yet understanding that they were too late. He looked back at Mattie, who was reveling in the interplay of red and blue lights, as if she was standing in a warm rain. She put her hands out and smiled at him. A genuine, but deeply wounded smile.
“You don’t have much time, Billy Travers. God is almost ready. And if he doesn’t forgive you, then you’ll be left here. You’ll be all alone in this valley. You and the wild horses.”
“Wild horses?” Billy asked. But it was too late. Mattie was gone, running north towards Salt Lake City. He could feel her presence moving away from him, but he didn’t follow. He knew he could always find her. There was a bond between them that had existed since that day at the cabin. The day the little girl died, and he helplessly watched the light fade from her eyes.
“I love you, Princess,” he said, wishing she could still hear him. “I won’t stop loving you. I promise.”
Billy looked around. The whole parking lot was crawling with ambulances and police cars, but their sirens were off. It made for an eerie scene where the paramedics worked with hushed voices, and the police officers huddled together in twos and threes, as if for protection.
Some of the worst of the wounded were now being evacuated. He watched as the paramedics covered the dead girl with a white sheet. Her face was no longer visible. Her boyfriend’s expression was just as blank, as he sat in the pool of blood, unmoving.
She really did look like Frances, Billy thought again, and the ache of her loss squeezed his heart like a vise, the way it always did. The way it was squeezing the heart of the boy on the pavement, staring blankly into the distance.
Looking back toward the mall, he saw the police stretching crime scene tape to keep out the onlookers. By now, they would have been the theatre and counted the dead. So very many. And so much blood. So much pain. So much mourning. It wasn’t just the boy on the pavement. Tonight there would be devastated families all across the city, overcome by the unexpected loss that was the single most defining characteristic of human existence.
Billy put his hand on the shoulder of the boy. As always, it was cold and hard like granite. The boy did not sense him there. None of the living ever did. The gesture was not meant to comfort the boy, and Billy was not sure what taking this moment accomplished. Perhaps it was only to reaffirm that he was still human. Perhaps it was more for himself than it was for the boy.
Mattie was rushing northwest, toward the city. He could not see her, but when he closed his eyes he could sense her, as he had long been able to do. She was moving quickly, but not running, a quarter mile or so away. He opened his eyes and looked at the surrounding scene, and felt weary. It was all just death and sadness, and he’d had enough of that. He had lived with more loss and grief since 1857 than he could possibly calculate. He had seen it consume both the living and the dead. He needed no more of it.
And yet, he sensed that more was coming. Perhaps so much more that it would dwarf what happened here today. It could dwarf all he had witnessed since 1857.
Slowly, Billy left the parking lot. Somewhere, far ahead, Mattie was looking forward. She wouldn’t look back to see if he was there. She never did.
As he did the day that he returned, Billy followed her.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.