The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 1.18: That Old Kilani Magic

Book One — The Hereafter

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June 6, 7:10 am

One benefit of their creaky old house was that Pil could always tell when his wife was stirring in their bedroom upstairs. He was always up early; a habit he had never shed from his days growing up on his foster family’s ranch on the north coast of New Zealand. Pil had not been back there since he and Michelle left Hawaii, but some habits died hard.

Pil’s journey from being an orphan Maori boy to a devoted Mormon husband seemed like an unlikely one, even to the man who had lived it. But whatever hand had guided his fate, Pil felt blessed. It had been an amazing twelve years with his wife, who was, by far, the best person he had ever known. He loved their church, their home, and their plans to start a family after he finished graduate school. It had all seemed so close to perfect.

That is, until violence had struck so unexpectedly, just three and a half short days ago.

As Michelle stirred upstairs, Pil went to the cabinet to get her favorite coffee cup, and realized that his hand was shaking.

Now that he no longer had work to do, such as cleaning and repairing Keith’s house, Pil could see how on edge his nerves had become. Staying busy had kept his brain from chasing its own tail, but now that Keith was back home and they were alone in the house, he realized he had born more of the stress than he thought. Even the extra passion in the sex last night hadn’t completely dispelled the dark cloud he now felt hovering over their lives.

As he did every morning, Pil waited until he actually heard Michelle on the stairs before he poured her coffee. He listened as his wife descended the last few steps and came into their kitchen; her face inches away from her cell phone, her hair still mussed from a restless night. As it always did, seeing her made him realize everything would be all right.

“Good Morning, m’lady,” he said with a smile, as he pulled out her chair. Michelle sank down at the table with a yawn, still rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

“You don’t look like you slept great,” he said. “I thought the old Kilani magic would have put you right to sleep.” He winked at her, mischievously.

“Mmmmm….” she said, rubbing her face in her hands. “Yeah, I think we both needed that last night. You were such a beast.” Finally, she looked up and caught his eye, and saw him raising and lowering his thick eyebrows in his poor imitation of Groucho Marx.

She smiled. Pil had seen little of that smile since the disaster last week. Since then, everything had been so dark, and each day had felt like a struggle just to get through. And if it had been that hard for him, he could only imagine how it had been for Keith and Michelle.

Pil had been at the Youth Crisis Line that night, training a new cohort of volunteers. He hadn’t realized what had happened until he got the text on the way home. It was brief and terrifying: “Richard has been shot, and is dead. Keith is okay. We’re at our house. Come as soon as you can.” He’d almost driven off the road. When he arrived, he found Keith and Michelle sitting together on the living room floor. There was a detective with them by the name of Grayson, and a woman he later learned was a grief counselor in the city’s employ. The hours and days since had been nothing but a blur of pain and mourning and the very necessary work that needed to be done when someone died. It had exhausted Pil, but it had devastated Michelle and Keith.

“That looked like an actual smile,” he said, feeling the catch of emotion in his own throat. “It’s nice to see something that feels normal coming back.”

“I think that started last night. Which was lovely, by the way.” She reached out to squeeze his hand.

“It was more than lovely, lady. It was necessary. I think it made us feel alive and real again, for the first time in days.”

The light was back in her eyes, and she put her phone into the pocket of the big flannel shirt she was wearing. She had gotten into the habit of wearing his old shirts as nightgowns. “I think ‘necessary’ is a good word, Meowi.”

Pil kissed the top of her head, and glanced at the phone, still glowing through the fabric of the shirt. “Anything overnight from our boy?”

“No, nothing.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Pil got up to refill his coffee. “It means he must have slept through the night.”

“I hope so. I just can’t stop thinking of him over there all by himself. What if he woke up overnight in a panic, and nobody was there to talk to him, to help him through it?”

“Mish, he’s stronger than you give him credit for. He’s finding his way through this, the best he can. We’ve got to trust him. Let him set the pace.” He paused a moment, then stroked her cheek with his huge paw. “You’ve been amazing through all this. I hope you know that.”

Michelle was silent, and Pil could see the tears were still there, just barely under the surface.

“I wish I had been there.” he said, for perhaps the hundredth time. “I think I’m having survivor’s guilt. I should have been there when you needed me. When you both needed me.”

“I told you, baby, I’m glad you weren’t,” Michelle said, holding his hand against her cheek. “You have no idea how important it’s been to both Keith and me that you didn’t go through that. It wouldn’t have helped anybody to have all three of us…” she searched for the word. “To have all three of us melting down at the same time.”

He had to admit there was some truth in that. If his strength had failed, it would have been tougher for Michelle and Keith to have leaned on him the way they had.

“I know it’s only been a few days,” Michelle said. “But I think I’m finally accepting the reality of what happened. To Keith. To all of us.” Her voice was cracking, and he knew she was just seconds from a full on storm of tears. “Meowi, I don’t know how we come back from this, and I don’t know how to help Keith. I can’t help thinking about something I once heard—that parents who lose a child often don’t stay together after. The pain and the trauma are just too much for them, and it destroys the relationship. I worry that will happen to me and Keith. That we’re both too wounded now to…” her voice trailed off, and her hand toyed with the handle of the coffee cup.

What she said was true. Pil was in the last year of his Master’s in Social Work at the University, and he knew that parents often separated after the death of their child. It was a well-known phenomenon. And he’d even talked to kids on the crisis line who had told him similar stories from their own lives. But could that happen to two best friends as well? Would Richard’s death steal Keith from Michelle?

Could it even threaten our marriage?

He said none of this to his wife. Pil knew that what she needed now was just to feel safe and loved. He sat in the chair next to her, and pulled her into his lap, enfolding her in his thick arms.

As always, Michelle felt so tiny when Pil held her. She was less than a third of his bulk, and a foot and a half shorter. Pil clocked in at six foot six, and four hundred pounds. Perhaps more, now that his once chiseled and muscular island body had softened with the years. Enfolding his wife in his arms often made him feel like he was holding one of the fragile kittens that he loved so much. She pulled her knees up into his lap and rested her head against his thick chest. And his arms around her practically made her disappear against him. He knew that being held this way was the only time when his super-efficient and control-freak wife truly allowed herself to be vulnerable.

And as he knew they would, the tears came again.

He rocked her while she cried, and after a few minutes, the tears slowed. He carried her to the couch and then went back to the kitchen to get their coffee cups. They sat in silence on the couch for a long time, just holding hands, sipping their coffee, and watching the early morning light play off the leaves of the trees outside their window.

As if she was reading his mind, Michelle asked, “Do you ever wonder how you ended up here?”

He kissed the back of her hand. “Me specifically, or us?”

“Both, I guess,” Michelle said. “But I was thinking mostly of you. After all, I was born here. But you were kind of hijacked. I’m sure when you were young you never imagined this was the life you would be living.” She gestured around the room, but it was clear she meant more than just the house. She meant the whole world of Salt Lake City, Mormonism, and America.

She was right, of course. Pil grew up as an orphan in the foster care system in New Zealand. Between the time he was very young until the age of ten, he bounced through several foster homes. He didn’t land in his “forever home” at the ranch of his parents until he was nearly twelve.

“Oh, it’s not so weird,” he said. “Maybe it was all the foster homes when I was young that made me yearn for structure. And nobody loves structure more than the Mormons.”

Michelle snickered. “That’s definitely true. But you were adopted when you were twelve. And you had a family after that.”

“Yeah, but even then, my mom wanted more than just a family. She wanted a community.” He smiled, remembering. “She was easy pickings for the missionaries, I think.”

“That actually sounds a little cynical, Beastie,” Michelle said, pinching his tattooed forearm.

“I don’t mean it to be. Really. I think the Church saved my mom’s life, in a lot of ways.”

“But what about you? You don’t regret any of it? We’ve been here in Utah a dozen years. You never wish we’d stayed in Hawaii?”

“Not at all. You know I only hired on at the Cultural Center because they paid my way to BYU. But I stayed because I think I needed what I found there as much as my mom did. It was community, and it was acceptance. I’m grateful to my mom for taking us to Hawaii. I’m grateful for every step along the way. It all brought me to you.” He kissed her hand. “You’re the best choice I ever made.”

“Family you choose is always your forever family, I think,” Michelle said, softly.

Pil laughed. “Well, that’s not particularly doctrine, you know.”

“I know,” she said. “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it. About family, I mean.” He waited for her to go on, but she didn’t. He could feel her mind working there on the couch and decided it was best to just sit with her. He leaned over and kissed the top of her head.

“Keith missed you yesterday,” she said, breaking the silence. “He asked why you didn’t come to dinner with us last night.”

There was a bit of a sting in that. Pil definitely should have been there. “I was helping to put the boards up over the window. And supervising the cleaning crew. Somebody needed to be there.” That was true, as far as it went. But he also sensed that his presence might not be as comforting to Keith as Michelle imagined.

She took his hand. “I’m glad you’re coming with us to the funeral home today. It will do Keith good to see you.”

“Me too,” Pil said, kissing the back of her hand. “I just hope my presence doesn’t… complicate his grieving.”

He expected Michelle to question that statement and was a bit surprised when she didn’t. But after all, she knew that Keith’s feelings for him were… He supposed that “complicated” was the best word.

Many of the performers at the Cultural Center had been gay, although mostly closeted. And they always gravitated to him. It soon became a joke among his friends that the men seemed more attracted to Pi’ilani than the women were. It didn’t bother him back then, and perhaps the fact that he enjoyed the joking about it as much as his friends did took out any sting they may have intended. But when it came to Keith, he had always felt it best to ignore the elephant in the room, so as not to complicate Michelle’s relationship with her best friend. He’d always pretended not to notice the way Keith looked at him.

“Don’t try to over-think things, Pil,” Michelle said. He realized that he was lost in thought again, and Michelle had shaken him out of his reverie. He had to think for a second to remember what they were talking about.

Oh, yeah, we’re going to the mortuary appointment today…

“Keith loves both of us, and we both love him,” Michelle said. “He needs us both right now. He needs to feel safe. And I think he may need that from you more than me right now. I don’t know, maybe it’s a guy thing.”

Pil thought for a moment. “I think you’re saying he needs the affection of a man more than a woman.”

“Not just any man, honey. You.” When he didn’t respond, she continued. “We both know how he feels about you. You may be able to help him through this better than anybody.”

That was the closest Michelle had ever come to naming that elephant in the room. He was still struggling for words when she sighed and changed the subject.

“I feel guilty for feeling this way. But I can’t help but think that Richard Pratt complicated things for all of us when he came onto the scene. And now that he’s gone, he’s complicated them even more.”

That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, Pil thought.

“Richard was a hard guy to figure out, right from the start,” Pil said, putting his coffee cup down on the end table. “And it wasn’t just that he was older. It was that he was so brash and arrogant. So much Keith’s opposite. We spent those first few years wishing they’d break up, I remember.”

“Well, that was probably just our protective instincts. Maybe nobody could have been good enough for Keith, at least in our eyes.”

“Maybe. But Richard certainly wasn’t good enough. I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, but…”

Michelle put her finger to his lips. “I know, Meowi. But that’s all water under the bridge now. Keith loved him very much. We both accepted that years ago…”

“Yeah, kicking and screaming…”

“Maybe. But he was who he was. And he’s gone. Let’s just try to focus on what Keith needs now.”

Pil pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head. “You’re very wise, m’lady…”

He felt her phone buzz against his chest. Michelle felt it too and pulled it out of her pocket. She held up the phone to show him the text.

“He’s awake,” she said.

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.

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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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