June 6, 9:49 am
Richard wanted to run until his lungs were ready to explode; the way he used to run decades ago. He wanted to run with no goal and no destination. To run until the memory of Keith’s wailing was drained from his exhausted mind and body.
If he had been thinking clearly, he would have run for the hills that towered over Salt Lake City. Or he would have set out for the Salt Flats, where he could be as alone as he would be in the Sahara desert. But instead he just ran without thinking, dodging cars and pedestrians, and even ricocheting off them, all with no apparent effect—like a pinball spiraling toward whatever oblivion gravity demanded.
Liberty Park was only two miles away from their house, and Richard made no conscious decision to go there. But when he finally stopped running, his lungs on fire and his legs weak and trembling, he saw he was on the northern end of the park.
I was running, he realized, with a start. I haven’t been able to run like that in years. And I have never run so fast! Despite his panic, which still gnawed at his mind like a trapped animal, he also felt strangely exhilarated.
A double sidewalk ran through the spine of the park, creating a beautiful green corridor, lined by magnificent old cottonwood trees. Now that he was away from traffic and other people, Richard finally felt that he could try to calm his racing heart and mind. Weaving unsteadily in and out among the cottonwoods, he made his way to the center of the park. He knew from the crowds that it must be a weekend—probably a Saturday, since it was still early and there were a lot of Mormon families, just arriving to spread out their blankets. Dogs were running after frisbees, and young couples sat or laid together in the morning sunshine He found a bench that was out of the way of the main traffic, and sank down there, as his breath finally returned to normal, and the burning sensation quickly flowed from his legs.
Is it strange for a ghost to be out of breath? he wondered. It didn’t feel strange. Despite the speed at which he could run, his body felt oddly normal. Perfectly real. The only true strangeness was in how fast he could run, and how quickly the exhaustion flowed from him. Faster, even, than when he was in his twenties. Back then, running felt like flying, and he could pound out ten miles on even a mediocre day. He would become so full of adrenalin on those runs that he wouldn’t notice his legs chafing, or his nipples rubbing raw against his shirt. Afterward, he’d pay for those long runs with at least a day or two of discomfort. But as a ghost, it seemed that his body shed the pain and the exhaustion as easily as a duck would shake water off its back.
This world is a dumbfounding combination of the familiar and the strange, he thought.
His pounding heart subsided, and the aching in his feet was almost gone. Absently, he crossed his legs to rub his right foot. For the first time, he took stock of how he was dressed. His clothes would not be unusual for a man lounging at home, but they were very unusual for a day in the park. First, he had no shoes, so no wonder his feet felt like they’d been pounded past endurance. He had on the blue wool socks he habitually wore around the house. That, combined with the pajama bottoms and sweatshirt, would have definitely made him stand out in the park.
If I saw someone looking like this, I’d immediately figure they were down on their luck, he thought. Probably homeless.
He wished for the sidelong glances of distrust he should get in this state, but the people walking past him never turned their heads.
His inspection also showed that the blood on his sweatshirt ringed his head and shoulders like he was wearing a shawl. It looked fresh, but touching it, he discovered it was dry. In fact, he couldn’t feel it at all. It was like the blood was simply a discoloration of the fabric. He was glad he hadn’t been able to see his reflection in the mirror. It would have been a horrendous sight.
As he rubbed his sore foot, he wondered about the socks. And carefully, he pulled one off. It came off easily, and his foot looked just the same as it always did. There was no sign of injury from the running, and indeed, it no longer hurt at all. He dropped the sock onto the bench next to him…
And the sock was back on his foot.
Richard wasn’t even shocked. Of course… the clothes are part of me now. As real, or as unreal, as my body. As an experiment, he tried it again. He took off the sock, and tried to throw it across the grass, watching carefully. But the moment it left his hand, it disappeared once again, and was back on his foot.
He tried the same thing with his sweatshirt and in taking it off, he could see that the back was far more stained than the front. In fact, it was completely red, as if he had been lying in a pool of his own blood. Which, of course, he had.
The sun and wind felt good on his chest. He held out his arm and then dropped the shirt. And as he expected, as soon as he dropped it to the grass, it was back on his chest.
At the far end of the park was the lake, and Tracy Aviary, with its collection of exotic birds. The air was still, and Richard could hear what sounded like a radio controlled boat on the lake, and the birds calling back and forth in the morning air. The sound of cars at the perimeter of the park was a comforting hum, and the conversations and laughter from the surrounding families soothed his racing mind.
When he opened his eyes, he saw a withered old woman hobbling up to his bench, making good time with her walker. She sat down next to him and pulled a bag of Cheetos out of a canvas sack hanging on the walker. With shaking fingers, she opened the bag and munched noisily, looking out over the grass. She had a little dog with her, on a leash attached to the walker, and she picked it up and stroked it in her lap. Richard looked at the dog, wondering if the stories he had heard about dogs having a sixth sense about ghosts were true. It would be a comfort just to have a dog meet his eyes and prove to him he was really there. He reached out and stroked the dog, which was a calm little thing, sitting in the old woman’s lap. Richard wasn’t sure what he expected, but there was nothing. No sudden start, no wagging of the tail, not even a growl or a shudder. The dog seemed as unaware of him as his mistress.
“Your dog reminds me of Kubrick,” Richard said to the old woman. He had not expected to speak to her, and he knew she couldn’t hear him. But the sound of his voice was comforting.
“Kubrick was a goofy, mangy little mutt that Keith and I rescued the first year we were together. We used to bring him here on weekends. Usually Sunday mornings. He liked to play with the other dogs. He was such a happy little guy. Kids loved him, and he’d lick them to death while they giggled.”
The old woman crunched a Cheeto and wiped the orange dust onto the bench.
“We had him five years. He died of a rare bone disease, and Keith and I scattered his ashes right here in the park. We snuck in at 2:00 in the morning, since we weren’t sure that the law would allow such a thing. But we figured if they caught us, it would be easier to ask forgiveness than permission. So we snuck in past the ‘park closed’ signs and came out of the bushes just long enough to open the plastic bag and scatter his ashes there in the pond.”
He looked south to where they had laid Kubrick to rest and sighed.
“He loved this park. Maybe he’s still playing around here somewhere. What do you think?”
The old woman was making cooing noises now, scratching the little dog behind the ears.
“After, I think we were kind of excited by the danger of being alone in the park after dark. So we found a stretch of grass behind a small hill, right over there,” he pointed to the west. “I made love to Keith there on the grass, under the stars. It was… kind of magic. After, we stayed as long as we dared, totally naked in the grass, staring up at the stars that were far more brilliant than they had any right to be, here in the middle of the city. Keith reminded me of how bright the stars were the night we met, and first made love, in that hot tub in Park City.”
It felt good to say those words, even to someone who had no ability to hear him.
“Do you think those stars will look just the same, now that I’m dead? And will I still be watching them in a hundred years, when everyone I’ve ever known and loved is gone? And then what do I do? Do I just walk the earth and observe? What is the point of that? There has to be more to it than this.”
The old woman finished her Cheetos and left the empty bag beside her on the bench. With a badly stifled belch, she rose to her feet and installed herself into the walker. The little dog jumped down, ready to go with the woman, his short leash attached to the crossbar of the walker. Richard watched as the two made their way across the grass. A man his own age met her halfway, and touching her tenderly on the shoulder, Richard heard him say, “You ready to go home, ma?”
If she responded, Richard didn’t hear it. But the two continued across the grass. Richard couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s hand, tight around his mother’s elbow, steadying her slightly as she moved. His patience was profound and touching, his love for his mother unquestionable.
But more than that, his touch on her elbow was real.
The touch made a difference.
Richard reached down instinctively to pick up the orange cellophane bag she had left. He grasped the corner and pulled, but it didn’t budge from the park bench. After a few moments, he gave up. Then a breeze stirred, and the plastic bag fell to the grass. As it blew away, it struck his foot, and pushed it aside as if was an irresistible force. The pressure against his foot was real, but brief. And then the bag blew away across the grass.
In frustration, he smashed his knuckles on the bench. He heard the bang, and he winced with the pain, but his skin was smooth and unhurt, the pain quickly gone. He tried to bite his arm. The pain flared through him like he would expect, but his skin remained unmarked.
So, injury is now impossible, and pain is… transient, he thought. At least, physical pain. The emotional pain…
Fearing to let his mind go down that road, Richard wandered into the park, with no destination in mind. Thankfully, he found he was passing from terror and anxiety, and into a kind of numb curiosity. There was life all around him, but nothing looked the same. The colors were off. The sounds were too clear. The smells, exaggerated. Every detail made him more aware how apart from all of life the world of the dead was. He touched the cottonwoods and the grass and even other people as they passed, all of it feeling like strange moving concrete, rough and uncomfortable on his fingers.
Richard stopped at the edge of a small grove. It looked familiar, and he passed through it to a gentle hillside, now dotted with a half-dozen people.
This is the place, he realized. This is where Keith and I made love that night. I guess it wasn’t as secluded as we thought.
Not only was the hillside dotted with groups of people, sunbathing or just relaxing in the grass, but he realized that the hillside also overlooked a playground, just a few dozen yards away. It was a great place for parents to sit and watch their kids play. Richard couldn’t help but smile, thinking about making love to Keith here, in the dark, where all these young Mormon couples now lounged with their kids and their dogs. How thrilling it had been, and how terrified Keith had been that they’d get caught.
He remembered laying there with Keith afterward, telling him the story of how he had been caught by a cop while making out with a guy he was dating, his first year of College in New York. “Gentlemen, and I use that term loosely,” the cop had said. Keith had laughed so hard at that story that he was afraid they’d attract attention.
Standing in what was, to the best of his memory, the exact spot where they had laid together in the grass, his ache was intense and overwhelming. And yet, Richard was also confused by what felt like a deep acceptance growing in him. It was an acceptance that this would be his world now, and that denying it and trying to wish it otherwise would only make it harder. Still, despite that acceptance, the longing in him for his lost life made his heart feel like it was struggling for every beat. It was a longing for Keith, but it was also a longing for life—for touch, for conversation, for laughter, and for a feeling that he was connected to the world.
He realized that what he felt was lonely. And that he had never really understood the meaning of that word until this moment.
A young woman sat alone on a blanket, staring out at the children playing below. There was a look of sadness in her eyes that Richard recognized, but he knew he would never hear her story. Perhaps it was the loss of a love, or even the loss of a child. Something in this woman’s face betrayed she had born the weight of more pain than her years should require. He wanted to talk to her, to vent his feelings out loud, even though she couldn’t see or hear him. He wanted to tell her he understood, and that he had suffered loss too. He wanted her to know she would find her way through it. He wanted to tell her that, but he knew he no longer believed it. Looking around the park, at even the laughing faces and smiling children, Richard could see evidence of loss everywhere. Like the ashes of Kubrick, the loss was scattered throughout this park and every face he saw bore traces of it. The trees would lose their leaves. The grass would be crushed under winter snows. Loss was intrinsic to the entire cycle of life. Loss was the one constant of the universe.
Somewhere, in his house in the Avenues, Keith might still be wailing in pain. And that wound, Richard thought, is my fault. I promised Keith I would never leave him, just as I promised Justin. And now I’ve left them both. Justin is dead and gone. But Keith has to live with that hurt.
Richard’s death was no fault of his own. But knowing that didn’t help at all. Keith’s tears and grief were his fault. He took responsibility for his lover’s happiness long ago, and it was a responsibility he had promised he would never shirk. His inability to comfort Keith was his fault. His leaving Keith to live a life without the man he loved was his fault. His death was a betrayal of love, and of life itself.
He would never forgive himself for it.
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.