June 6, 11:00 am
Although Richard cared deeply about the people he loved, they numbered very few. And for the rest of humanity, he really had little patience.
In the days before he died, if you had asked Richard who he considered to be his family, he would have immediately said Keith, of course. But then he would have been forced to stop and think for a moment. He had students, of course, and he had colleagues both at the University and around the world. He was fond of his editor at McGraw Hill, who published all his scholarly works. He had acquaintances and even a few play partners (although the number of those had declined in recent years).
But other than Keith, who did Richard Pratt really care about?
There was Cindy, of course. She had been a good friend since even before she had introduced him to Keith, and they had lunch together at the University at least once a week. But he suspected he enjoyed her company because she was nearly as cynical as he was and shared the same rather nihilistic view of the universe. According to Cindy, it was all going to shit around them every minute, and if the government didn’t put them all in camps, then eventually they would all starve together because of climate change. Richard would nod and agree, and could match her pessimism and raise the stakes, as if they were upping each other in a game of poker. According to Cindy, who smoked like a chimney and could drink Richard under the table, there wasn’t an answer for any of it, other than pursuing a hedonistic life as a way to say “fuck you” to all the bastards out there.
So, Cindy was definitely his best friend. And beyond her there were a few bears he found less annoying than the others. Most of them were in couples that he and Keith socialized with together. Joey and Rob, for instance, or Gavin and Wayne. And every once in a while, at a house party, he’d meet someone new that hadn’t heard his schtick, and found him fascinating. If he could hold court on some academic subject he knew a lot about, or on some political topic, he was in his element. But once the conversation strayed to pop culture or typical bear gossip (usually who was sleeping with who), he excused himself and made his way to the punchbowl.
He enjoyed the flirting and the masculine energy that he found among bigger, hairy guys like himself, and the occasional sexy cub that found him to be a hot daddy bear, and climbed all over him at a party after a few too many drinks, still did his ego a lot of good. But how many of them were really friends, let alone family?
Truth be told, more than half of the bears they knew annoyed the shit out of him, and he found his tolerance for their shallowness and hedonism growing thinner and thinner, the older he got. Plus, he was convinced that a lot of their bear friends only tolerated him because Keith was so adorable. He imagined the conversations between their friends when they weren’t around. One would ask, “So, do you know Keith and Richard?” The other would respond, “Yes! Keith is so sweet…”
But it wasn’t just the bears that wore him out. It seemed that the older he got the less he liked people in general. Keith had always been the introvert, but Richard was finding that, as the years went by, he was becoming more and more content to just stay at home with the man he loved. Big crowds had come to annoy him, and the sound of chattering people or crying children in public felt like fingernails on a chalkboard.
In contrast, Keith hadn’t seemed to change at all in the years they’d been together. He had always been shy around strangers. If one of them was going to suggest they go out to a dinner party, it was usually Richard. He received the invitations, and passed them on to Keith, whose first question was usually, “How many people will be there?” If the answer was more than a half dozen, and Keith didn’t know at least half of them, then getting him to go took a lot of convincing on Richard’s part. It was a tribute to Richard’s persuasion that his cub usually gave in.
Keith’s suggestion of things for them to do were usually much less social. He was more likely to suggest the picnics in the park, or the six-day hike down and back in the Grand Canyon, which they did last year. Or the car trip to Zion. He loved spending time with close friends, as long as it was just another couple, or maybe two. But in a big crowd, Keith tended to become a wallflower.
But whatever their relative social preferences, it had worked for more than a decade, and they had been happy.
Now, walking around Liberty Park, Richard longed for human contact in a way that he hadn’t felt since he was an undergraduate in New York. Rather than grumbling at the tourists and the big Mormon families, wishing they’d all just get out of his way (and for god’s sake, quiet those screaming children), he now looked on those strangers with longing. The human connections that had seemed of so little value to him when he was alive looked and felt like little miracles unfolding all around him.
Richard had never been an eavesdropper. He’d never wanted to be the proverbial “fly on the wall.” And it was a novel experience for him to listen to conversations without restraint or shame. And yet, he quickly discovered that the best balm for the loneliness of the dead were the conversations of the living.
A middle-aged couple approaching his bench distracted him. They were talking quietly to each other, both of their heads down. The wife took her husband’s hand, and they walked slowly his way. Richard literally had to jump out of the way to avoid them sitting on him, and he wondered, briefly, what would have happened if he hadn’t moved.
The man had close-cropped hair and a high buttoned collar that made him look like he might be a banker or an accountant. The woman was dressed in business casual, and he wondered if the two of them were there on a shared lunch hour from their respective office jobs.
He imagined the woman had turned a lot of heads when she was younger, but now she looked tired and worn out, with wrinkles developing rapidly around eyes and hands that looked even older than her years. The man’s hair was rapidly thinning and graying. But still, the couple looked like they had been together a long, long time. The intimacy between them was like a cloak they both wore. But watching them, Richard realized that the cloak was also one of pain. He leaned close to hear their whispered words.
“…Roger, I can’t pretend that it was nothing. I wouldn’t lie to you like that. He made me feel like I was… the only thing that mattered in the world. He didn’t want me because I was the mother of his children, or because we’d ever have a home or a life or bank account together. We never pretended that was where it was heading. He wanted me because he found me beautiful. And I needed that in my life…”
“I still find you beautiful,” the man said, his voice low. But his eyes were on their hands, not on his wife’s face.
“No, you don’t, honey. And that’s okay. What we have is more than just being attracted to each other. We have a life. We have three amazing kids. I needed what I got from him. But I never, ever, wanted to give up what we have…” The man was silent for a moment, then the woman continued. “But I guess it’s up to you to decide. If you want me to go, I’ll understand.”
Richard wanted to listen more, but he found himself backing away from the bench, embarrassed and self-conscious, even though they had no idea he was there. He retreated from the couple who continued to talk together in low, hushed voices. From down the hill, he watched as the man put his hand to his wife’s face, and then they kissed and hugged awkwardly on the bench. Richard felt his throat closing up with emotion and had to turn away.
Shaken, he joined up with a group of three girls who walked by, listening as they chattered about a movie they recently saw. As they walked, one of the girls said, “I may never go to a movie again, not after what happened last night at Valley Fair.”
One girl looked up from her phone. “Why? what happened at Valley Fair? I go there all the time.”
“Sheesh, Linda,” said her raven-haired friend. “You’re so out of touch. Don’t you look at Facebook? If you did, you’d know.” She took her friend’s phone and started scrolling. “Here, look.”
Over her shoulder, Richard read the headline on a story the girl had shared that morning on her time line. “Valley Fair Mall Slasher Identified.”
She read the first paragraph aloud to her friend. “‘West Valley Police confirmed this morning the identity of the man who killed nine people and injured thirteen more at the Valley Fair Mall cinemas on Friday. He has been identified as Bradley Seward, aged forty. Seward, who committed suicide following the knife attack at the theater, was an Air Force pilot, stationed at Dugway Proving Grounds, where he reportedly flew experimental aircraft.’”
“I watched it on the news last night,” the third of the friends chimed in. “They had pictures from the parking lot. It was weird, because we all go there all the time, and I recognized everything. I guess it was totally horror-show.”
Richard smiled, hearing an echo of A Clockwork Orange in the girl’s use of the phrase “horror-show.” That book and movie was long before her time. She probably did not know where she’d picked up that phrase.
The girl named Linda looked pale, as she continued reading the story on her phone, and Richard could see a cloud pass over the three friends. She finally put her phone back in her pocket, clearly troubled.
“This sort of thing never used to happen here,” she said, her eyes on the ground. “But these last few months a lot of crazy shit like this has been going on.”
“Yeah, like that professor that got shot up in the Avenues,” her friend said. “We used to live up that way when I was in grade school. It’s like, this quiet neighborhood. Very boring and dull.”
The girl’s fear that things were spiraling out of control in the placid Salt Lake Valley chilled Richard. He couldn’t help but picture those victims from the theater, all rushing down that stream in the Void. Faces that had been laughing and joking with friends one minute, in the next were terrified and hurtling toward oblivion in the dark. The memory of the cottonwood tree and the branches like tentacles returned to him, and he stopped cold on the sidewalk. The girls kept walking, chattering quietly now among themselves.
He looked around and saw the park, which was filled with Cottonwood trees. Despite the sunshine, there was something menacing about them.
It suddenly occurred to him that the professor the girl had mentioned was him. What did she say? A professor had been shot up in the Avenues? That had to be him. Although he had assumed he was shot, he had had no proof of that. It explained the red tree on the wall, and all the blood…
I guess it would make sense that people would know about it, he thought. A murder is a big thing happening in this town. Especially something random. It wasn’t some drug deal gone wrong or even a bar fight. I was a respected professor, murdered in my own home.
He sank down on a bench, trying to wrap his mind around what he had learned.
So I was a victim of murder. Jesus Christ, who would have wanted to kill me? Nobody had any reason to want me dead.
He literally couldn’t think of a single person who would despise him enough to fire a bullet into his head from his front porch. Yeah, it had to be the front porch. That explains the boarded-up window. Admittedly, he wasn’t the most friendly guy. But he also wasn’t someone that could inspire anybody to murder.
He didn’t think so, anyway.
On the grass to his left was a kid who was writing in his journal. The boy was maybe sixteen years old, and was lying face down on a blanket, on a hillside overlooking the playground below. Although Richard could only see the back of his head, he looked beautiful, with sandy brown hair and pale skin. He was raised on his elbows, and writing furiously, as if he didn’t even sense the world around him. Richard eased himself down next to the boy on the blanket, and feeling less self-conscious now, leaned his cheek on the boy’s shoulder. From there, he could read what was on the page.
“If I don’t get out of here, I swear I’m going to explode. All I want is to be left alone, but they’re always in my face with the things they want me to do, the things they want me to be. I hate them all for it, and I don’t want to have any part of their fucked up world. I don’t think I can make it through two more years of high school. All I want is to hop on a train or a bus and find someplace where I can find out what God wants of me. I don’t know what that is, but it sure as heck isn’t to live and die in the boring suburbs of Salt Lake City.”
To the world, the boy just looked like another young man enjoying the sunny park on a summer weekend. But inside he was a seething mass of conflicting emotions. Just as Richard had been at that age. Just as, perhaps, all boys that age are. Richard remembered how much he hated the world when he was sixteen, and how much he wanted nothing more than to escape from this city. It had seemed like the darkest and most repressive place on Earth. He had come out of the closet his junior year, and although he was lucky to have friends that helped him through that tough time, he had endured two years of whispers and sideways glances from students and teachers alike. Perhaps it was better for a gay kid now, but back then, it was pretty brutal. After that, getting out of Salt Lake City sounded like the best way to find his own life and start over.
Richard suddenly felt such love for this boy, which he realized was really just a love for the younger self he had been. It was a love for all the things he had dreamed about as a young man. He put his arm over the boy’s hard shoulders, and kissed the boy’s hand, which stopped writing, and lay on the page like a small, trembling bird.
He had wanted out of this city. This boy wanted out too.
And so did Justin.
Unbidden, memories of Justin flooded Richard’s mind. Justin too felt trapped in this city. Richard had told him he understood that feeling, and he really did. But that didn’t stop him from becoming part of the trap that Justin was caught in, when what he really needed was for Richard to be part of his escape.
Thinking of Justin, he stroked the boy’s hair, and his tears came again. How unjust that his tears should feel so real, that they should feel so wet on his face. How unfair that Justin had to die.
He looked at the boy, and his mind ricocheted from one thought to another.
Yes, he reminded him of Justin. He was a year or two younger. Justin had been just eighteen when they met, and he’d been thirty-three—still a young man, but as a professor he probably seemed older than his years, especially to a kid just out of high school. Justin, by contrast, barely seemed to be eighteen, or at least, that was what Richard thought at the time. In any case, the fifteen years between them had been enough of an age difference to cause a few raised eyebrows, even among his gay friends.
He’d always been attracted to younger men, and that hadn’t changed as he got older. Keith was just twenty-one when they met. Older than Justin, and much more worldly and wise. But with Keith, the age gap had grown to twenty-five years. He was definitely old enough to be Keith’s father.
Richard tried to take a breath to calm his racing thoughts, but the tears were flowing freely now.
As he wept and clung to the rigid body of the boy, he was suddenly overwhelmed by the certainty that his attraction to younger men was really a desperate attempt to hold on to life, to never age. And of course, to never die. It seemed so clear now. Why couldn’t he have seen that when he was living?
And now, even though he was dead, he still longed for life and youth and connection. If anything, the loss of his life had only made that longing grow into desperation. It was terrifying to him to think that longing would never go away, and he would have to live with that crushing ache for an eternity. He would have to live with knowing that he would never again feel the soft touch of a young man’s hand in his own, or gentle lips against his. He would never again look into a lover’s eyes and see them light up with recognition. Never again with Keith. Never again with anyone. Ever.
Memories of Justin had always triggered pain and regret in Richard, but now it would not just be memories of Justin that would break his heart, over and over. It would be memories of Keith as well. Both of them were now lost to him. And both losses felt like knives thrust into his heart.
I failed Keith, the same way I failed Justin.
He had never truly believed himself to be worthy of Keith. The possibility of doing to his gentle, beautiful cub what he did to Justin always prevented him from taking that last step of intimacy that Keith needed from him.
Lost in his thoughts, and crying against the shoulder of the boy (who was continuing to write now), Richard was suddenly flooded with the certainty that he had lost something more than he knew. He couldn’t remember that last night. It felt like the night he died was a key to understanding what was happening to him now, and that he must eventually remember it if he was going to know what he needed to do. He tried desperately to recall it, and even though now he remembered pretty much everything else, perhaps even with greater clarity than he ever had in his life, the last night of his life was still a blank. It was the puzzle piece that was missing from the picture. A large, looming, dark, and inscrutable hole in his memory.
He took a deep breath, and rolled onto his back next to the boy, trying to let the summer sun bleach away some of his pain.
“I never noticed it before,” he said to the boy, who was still furiously filling the college-ruled pages. “But I can feel the wind on my face. It feels totally normal. And I can feel my own breath, like I’m still alive.” He turned and touched the boy’s cheek. “But you don’t feel normal. You feel like you’re made of stone. The wind, and the sun on my face… It’s so real. It’s like I’m really here. Like I’m really alive! But I’m not. I know I’m not.”
The boy was still writing. Richard rolled over, and looked at the boy’s page, and watched as he wrote:
“The only time I feel happy is when I’m here in the park. When I can feel the wind and the sun on my face. It’s about the only time I feel like I’m really alive.”
The boy closed his journal, and rolled over on his back to look up into the sky, a look of yearning on his face that Richard still recalled from his own youth. Richard and the boy lay together on the blanket, side by side, and Richard’s tears subsided. He held the boy’s hard hand is his, trying to will it into softening, melting at his touch. But all he could hear was the wind, and the sounds of children playing.
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.