June 6, 7:10 am
Richard could almost pretend like everything was normal.
Watching Keith open his eyes was like any other morning in their lives, except that there was no blaring alarm clock on Richard’s side of the bed. Except that the pillow under his head felt like a river-worn stone. Except that Keith’s hand in his own was no warmer than that of a mannequin. And except for that fact that when Keith’s eyes opened and fell upon his lover, there was no sudden warm smile of recognition—no opening of his arms to pull him close.
Even with all of that, Richard could almost have pretended that this was just another normal morning in their home. Perhaps a Saturday, when they had planned to go hiking in the Wasatch, or maybe a winter morning when they would catch a matinee, followed by a romantic dinner.
The illusion was broken by Keith’s eyes. They did not brighten the way they should have. They just stared, unfocused and empty, through Richard to the far wall. Richard thought he saw just a glint of confusion in those eyes, before the same cloak of pain covered them that Richard had witnessed the night before.
That look was too much for Richard, and he turned away. Sitting up on the bed, he turned his back on Keith, trying to regain his composure. When he looked back, he was surprised to see that Keith had taken his pillow and buried his face in it. The pillow that had seemed like a stone to him was soft and pliable against Keith’s face, and he breathed deeply of Richard’s scent.
It’s probably the lavender beard oil, Richard thought. A little ghost of himself he had left behind.
Forcing himself to turn away, Richard arose from the bed, his legs weak and shaky. He crossed to the window and looked out through the venetian blinds. The sun on his face felt like the first real thing he had encountered since this nightmare had begun.
How strange that everything in this world feels so unreal, so artificial, Richard thought. And yet the sun on my face feels like it always has—so full of warmth and life.
Eyes closed, Richard allowed the sun to penetrate his skin and the warmth slowly stilled his racing mind.
Keith, behind him, seemed so silent. Richard would have heard him if he had gotten up from their bed. Turning back, Richard saw Keith had taken his journal out of the drawer, and was thumbing through the pages. He still had that same blank look on his face, like he didn’t understand what he was looking at. But at least he was sitting up and moving.
Richard wanted to grab him and shake him, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good. And he wasn’t sure what he would say if he did. If he was strong enough, perhaps he’d tell Keith to throw off this grief, and that he had a long life still ahead of him.
Richard knew he was not that strong.
Keith put the journal down on the nightstand. It was a tiny gesture, but more than anything else, the fact that he had not placed the notebook back in the drawer told Richard that Keith had accepted he was really gone. Keith had never hidden the fact that he wrote in his journal, but he had also never offered to read anything to Richard, and keeping it tucked away was his way of keeping that part of his life private. Richard had been curious, but never enough to violate Keith’s privacy.
All at once, Keith was up, out of bed, and heading toward the bathroom. Richard noticed he had slept last night in his t-shirt and gray boxers; being too exhausted, Richard supposed, to fully undress. His lover disappeared into the bathroom, but left the door open. He couldn’t see Keith from where he stood at the window, but he saw the t-shirt and boxers drop to the floor, and heard Keith turn on the shower.
Everything in Richard told him he should join Keith in that shower. But was he strong enough yet to bear seeing his lover’s naked body? Would seeing him in the shower just be too much of a reminder of the intimacy they had lost? And if he were to join him in that shower, what would the water do to him? Instinctively, he knew it would cut through him like a thousand needles.
Pain, he remembered, is what the dead keep from their lives.
But the real reason he did not follow was something he was less able to define. Somehow, he had lost the privilege of that shower. He had left his lover, after having spent a decade promising them both that he never would. Richard felt like he deserved neither that shower nor Keith’s love. His betrayal felt too unforgivable.
So instead, he crossed back to the bed. Keith’s journal lay at an angle on the top of the nightstand, one corner hanging into space. With one finger, he tried to lift the cover, but it was fused forever to the pages underneath. And the journal too was fused to the nightstand, as if they had been carved from a single block of wood. He was not surprised, and he didn’t continue to try.
This is just one more thing I don’t deserve.
Eventually, Keith emerged from the shower. From where Richard sat on the bed, he could see him now, but he was wrapped in a towel. Keith was always a little body shy—self-conscious of his round belly and chest. Which were the very things that Richard found most attractive in his lover.
As Keith stood at the mirror, brushing his teeth, Richard finally couldn’t help himself. He rose from the bed and walked into the bathroom. Standing behind his lover, he looked at him in the mirror, but it was so clouded with shower steam that Keith’s face was just a dark smudge. Keith finished with the toothbrush and rinsed his mouth. Then he stood, stock still, staring at himself in the mirror. Soon, he picked up a towel and wiped the glass, clearing away the condensation from the shower in a broad stroke. And Richard could finally see his lover’s face clearly.
He marveled at how alone Keith looked, and he wanted nothing more now than to just hold him—what he deserved or didn’t deserve be damned. Keith’s moist back was just inches away, and he bent over and kissed him, lightly, on the shoulder. Keith continued to stare into the mirror, his expression blank and unreadable. Richard ran his fingers over his smooth back and shoulders, even the curve of his belly. He longed for that warm, wet flesh, and the sound of Keith moaning as he leaned back against Richard’s chest. But his lover didn’t move, didn’t respond to his touch at all. And for Richard, there was no feel of living flesh. No warmth. No softness.
And no response, which hurt the worst.
Still, Richard felt his own body responding to Keith’s proximity, the way it always did. His erection was suddenly straining against his sweatpants, and he felt that familiar desire wash over him. He allowed his hand to trail down his lover’s round belly, finally encountering the cast plaster of the towel. Then further down… And Richard could feel Keith’s cock there.
And it was hard, straining against the terrycloth.
Shocked, he pulled his hand away as if burned, and stumbled back, almost falling into the shower. And everything was suddenly painfully familiar. How many times had he stood in this shower and seen Keith at this sink? How many times had Keith turned, dropped his clothes, and joined Richard under the warm spray? This entire room, reflected in the bathroom mirror, was just one of the many canvases upon which they painted their lives.
But there was one thing very wrong. One thing missing…
Richard realized he should see himself in that mirror, standing in the doorway of the shower. But the entire room behind Keith was empty. The mirror held only one person. Richard was not really there. And he never would be again. Keith was now painted on their canvas alone, and the heaviness of that solitude made his lover look as if he was a lost little boy, confused and afraid.
Keith abruptly broke his trance and left the bathroom. Richard watched him through the door as he sat on the edge of the bed and began furiously writing in his journal. He was writing with an intensity that Richard had never seen before. An intensity that flared out quickly and left Keith just staring at the scribbled page. Richard wanted to go to him, to read over his shoulder what he had written, but he couldn’t allow himself to do that.
He turned away and looked again in the mirror. Standing directly in front of it now, he saw that the steam had cleared from the glass. The bathroom was bathed in the light from the high window, and it all seemed unnaturally clear behind him. But it was just an empty room. Richard reached out a hand and placed it on the mirror. It actually felt just like the glass he remembered. But there was no reflection of his hand, and when he took it away, no handprint on the glass.
He watched as Keith dressed, took his cell phone, and left the bedroom. He could hear him descending the stairs, but he did not move to follow.
After he had gone, Richard stayed in the bedroom, touching the journal which Keith had left on the bed, among the rumpled sheets. He touched the edge of the book and tested it again, trying to lift the cover. It remained as solid as a rock.
All at once his reverie was broken by a wail that sounded like that of a wounded animal. But he knew instantly it was Keith. Never in his life had he heard his partner cry out in such pain, and it was so intense that Richard couldn’t tell if it was mental or physical agony.
Rushing down the stairs, Richard found a scene that was more horrible than any he had ever witnessed.
To Richard’s eyes, his lover was wailing and pounding his hands and face into the bloodied carpet. He was shouting, now, and what words Richard could pull from the air sounded like “don’t leave me!” and a long plaintive “why?” which ended in a undulating wail as Keith collapsed completely onto the bloody floor.
But the worst horror: As he writhed, Richard saw that the blood on the floor once again stained Keith’s face and hands. As he pounded his fists into the wetness, Richard could see it splatter, coming back down like rain on the carpet, the wall, and on Keith himself. Keith was pounding his fists against the floor as if he were trying to take out his horror on the blood that Richard had left behind. The gore was like nothing he had ever endured, as if the universe was forcing him to relive the horror of his own death all over again.
Richard was suddenly there, in the blood with Keith, trying to hold his thrashing lover as he screamed. “I’m here, baby, I’m here!” he cried, trying to hold Keith’s face in his hands. But the younger man was too wild, and his gyrations threw Richard off as if he was no more than a shadow. Richard tried again to pull his lover into his arms, but he was immovable as a tree. He tried to still Keith’s quivering sobs, but the shaking only rattled Richard like a jackhammer. He tried to pull Keith to his feet, but he was as heavy as a school bus.
This is Hell, Richard thought. Hell is when you love, and the one you love does not even know you’re there. Hell is when you reach out and touch, and the touch cannot be felt. Hell is when nothing you do can soothe the pain of the people you love, and Hell is when it will all go on, uninterrupted, forever.
And in that moment, the mind of Richard Pratt reached its limit, and broke.
As if his body wasn’t his own, Richard screamed and fell back, smashing his shoulder against the far wall. He turned his eyes away from the horror, and there was only one thought in his mind:
I have to get away from this! I have to get away from this now!
He couldn’t watch the man he loved suffer like this. If he didn’t get away from this, away from Keith, there would be nothing left of him.
And although part of his mind longed for that oblivion, a greater part was not yet ready for it. His body remembered where the door to the house was, and he stumbled down the corridor and grasped the door handle. Of course, it was locked, and he knew that there was no way his ghost hand could open it, even if it wasn’t.
But I have to get away! I have to get away now!
And then he was throwing himself against the door, again and again. With each panicked charge, the agony in his shoulder grew, until he felt like he was breaking bones. And yet still, he charged and crashed against the door, a third time, and then a fourth. And with one last great scream he charged again…
…and felt himself flung out of the house, across the porch, and halfway across his own lawn.
The contrast was stark.
One moment he was in the dark hallway of his home, and the next, he was in the warm June sunshine. He rolled over so it could fall full upon his face, which was now covered with tears and twisted into a mask of agony. The world looked strange in the golden sunshine, like a still from a Technicolor movie of a sunny day. The sounds were too crisp and clear. The smells too fresh. The sun on his face tingled as if he had just brushed his hands and face with aftershave. The familiarity and the strangeness, and the distant sound of Keith continuing to wail behind the closed door, was still too much to bear.
But I’m outside!
And it was as if his body knew that he could now run. Not only could he run, but he must. He must run and run and never stop. He had to put this nightmare behind him.
And so Richard Pratt ran.
He ran from his own house, in his own quiet neighborhood. He ran in the sunlight on a beautiful June day. He ran away from the man he had loved for more than a decade. He ran away from the lover to whom he had promised, more times than he could count, that he would never leave.
Richard ran. He disappeared down the street, running faster than he had ever run in his life.
And then he was gone.
The wailing in the house died out quickly, and no one in the neighborhood had been close enough to hear, with the sole exception of a stray cat that had been sunning itself on a porch across the street. It had perked up its ears when the wailing started and slunk away into the bushes.
As the wailing died away, all that was left was the quiet suburban neighborhood, on a typical midsummer day. From down the street, two children emerged, laughing in the sunshine. To them, the bright sun and the cool breeze meant a day of fun and play. They raced down the street together, destination unknown.
A dog barked somewhere and there was the sound of a man starting a lawn mower two streets over. Far too early in the morning, his neighbors would say.
There were birds in the trees, and they were singing their songs, hoping to attract a mate. A light breeze made the trees sigh, and two birds took flight together, disappearing into the blue summer sky.
The laughter of the children drifted up the street one last time, and then the rest of the Avenues began to emerge from behind their closed doors, and into a new day.
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.