The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 1.36: Safeway

The Last Handful of Clover — Book One: The Hereafter

NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.

June 6, 1:27 pm

Standing in the produce aisle, Michelle saw that her hand was shaking.

It was an odd sensation, considering that at the moment she didn’t feel especially stressed or tired. She stood there for several seconds, a bag of broccoli in one hand, the other spread wide in front of her face, quivering like a leaf.

Maybe Pil was right. He’d warned her she was taking on too much of what he called the “emotional burden” of Keith’s grief—not to mention her own—and that she needed to pull back and take care of herself. He’d almost begged her to get some rest before it all caught up to her, even volunteering to step in and spend time with Keith.

But there was no way that she could do that. For anybody else, perhaps. But not for Keith.

Ever since high school she had felt that it was her job, and hers alone, to keep her best friend safe. She had always been Keith’s confessor and counselor, and she was still protective of that role to a point that defied all good sense. Even in school, whether it had been something minor like not getting the role he wanted in the school play, or something more serious such as the boy who had broken his heart, Michelle was always standing by with her arms open.

Keith teased her about it often, even calling her “Grace Adler,” after the old sitcom character. She hated that comparison and pointed out to Keith that she was not some pathetic “fag hag,” clinging to and still in love with her gay best friend. She was a happily married woman with a life of her own.

But the comparison wasn’t totally wrong.

Michelle wasn’t in denial. She knew very well that she was in love with Keith, at least a little, and had been ever since they were teenagers. It was kind of cliche, she knew, to be the straight girl in love with her gay best friend. But unlike Grace Adler, Michelle had always been fiercely independent, and no slave to her heart. Keith’s coming out, when he was fifteen and she was sixteen, put everything she was feeling into perspective. She quickly adjusted to the idea that the big wedding with Keith that she’d been planning was no longer in their future. She had accepted that, and quickly come to think of him as something between a boyfriend and a brother, but with the protective instinct of a mama bear wrapping the whole thing together. And that’s how it had been for nearly twenty years.

But it didn’t mean that she stopped being in love with him. If anything, she loved him more now than she did then. She loved him, and she knew she would do pretty much anything to keep him safe.

She shook her hand for a few seconds, hoping that would stop the trembling, took a deep breath, and continued her shopping. Looking at her watch, she knew she had to hurry if she was going to get this stuff into Keith’s fridge, before they all headed to the funeral home.

Ten minutes later, as she was stuffing the groceries into the back of her big yellow SUV, her phone rang. She immediately recognized the number as Carla Grayson, the Detective in charge of Richard’s case.

They’d first met Grayson the night of Richard’s murder, when the two of them were still covered in Richard’s blood, and nothing seemed real. They were sitting on the back bumper of an ambulance, trembling under a shared silver blanket, while the cops swarmed all over the neighborhood, and the paramedics kept checking them for signs of shock. It was then that this kindly, matronly woman walked out of the shadows. She silently sank to her knees in front of the pair and took both their hands in hers. She didn’t speak for a long time. She just knelt there and held their hands, and Michelle could see the woman had tears in her eyes as well.

Long before Michelle knew that Carla Grayson was a Detective, she thought of her as a guardian angel.

She had interviewed them that night, sitting on the bumper of the ambulance, and then accompanied them home. She’d called in the psychologist, but by that point neither she nor Keith wanted to talk to anybody but Grayson. They’d had their more formal interviews the next morning, and the Detective had called several times in the days that followed, always leaving Michelle with the feeling that she really just wanted to make sure she and Keith were both doing okay. Michelle thought she’d never met a person with such natural empathy as Carla Grayson.

“Hello, Detective,” Michelle said as she put the last of the groceries in the SUV and slammed the door.

“Hi, Mrs. Kilani.” the Detective said, her voice strained.

Michelle thought the woman sounded tired. She leaned back against the car and examined her free hand, noting it had stopped shaking.

“What can I do for you, Ms. Grayson? Anything new to report?”

“Not much, I’m afraid. We’re continuing the investigation, but until I have something more substantial to tell you, I can’t really say much about how it is going. I’m sure you understand.”

That was pretty much her standard response to that query, and Michelle expected it. “I certainly understand. But I saw the picture of that boy on the news.”

“Yes. Howard Gunderson. We have to release the name and the mugshot when someone is charged. He doesn’t look it, but Gunderson is over eighteen, so he won’t be tried as a juvenile. That also means a lot of information went public when he was charged.”

“I find it hard to believe,” Michelle said, rubbing her eyes. “He’s so young, and the reporter said that he had no history of violence of any kind. Do you think it was an accident, or do you think it was something random? Maybe a gang thing?”

Michelle thought she detected a note of amusement in the Detective’s voice. “Well, that’s what we’re trying to find out. But no, I don’t think it was a gang thing. Nothing in the boy’s background would lead me to believe that would be the case. But we don’t know anything for sure yet.”

“I understand,” Michelle said. “I appreciate you keeping me up to date on things. Really, I do. And I will tell Keith you called.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Kilani. I appreciate that. But I’m afraid this isn’t purely a call just to check in.”

“Oh?” Michelle could sense some frustration in the Detective’s voice.

“The truth is, we can find no evidence that would lead us to think Dr. Pratt’s death is either an accident, or a random killing. I have to tell you, this is the most confounding case I’ve ever worked, and nothing about it makes any sense.” The detective sighed into the phone. “I know you said that neither you nor Keith know Gunderson. But I’m calling to ask if you are both absolutely sure. I need to know if there is any connection at all you might have overlooked, even if it seems extremely obscure. Is there any chance that Howard Gunderson might have known Dr. Pratt?”

Michelle felt her skin crawl. She had been expecting this, and it was something that had not been far from her mind, ever since the night of the murder.

“Detective, do you think it might be a hate crime? Do you think that boy murdered Richard because he was gay?”

Grayson paused. “Well, we have no reason to jump to that conclusion. And we can’t find any evidence that Gunderson is homophobic. None of his friends say he ever talked smack about gay people. Still, we have to ask, why would Gunderson direct the boy who was driving the truck to go to Dr. Pratt’s house? All the boys say it was as if Gunderson knew exactly where he wanted to go. It didn’t feel random to them at all. So I have to assume that there must be some connection between the two men.”

Michelle was a little taken aback. Detective Grayson had been very friendly and helpful, but there was a new tone in her voice. Clearly, since the murder, she had become emotionally involved in this case, or perhaps she was just immensely frustrated. Either way, Michelle suspected she knew what the Detective was getting at.

“I’m afraid there isn’t anything I can say that I haven’t already said, Detective. And I don’t think Keith can tell you any more either. He’s adamant that he’s never heard of this boy, never seen him, and has no reason to think that Richard did either. I assume you checked all of Richard’s social media accounts and found nothing. So if there is some connection between the two, it would be a surprise to me. And to Keith.”

The Detective’s voice became very tentative, almost like she was embarrassed. “I hate to ask this, but could you talk to Keith one more time? Now that he’s had some time to think, maybe he’s remembered something.”

“Well, I can ask. But as you can imagine, he’s still in a pretty fragile state. It’s only been four days since the murder, and we’re all consumed with making arrangements and just getting through each day. I really don’t want to upset him with too many more questions.”

“I understand, Michelle. I really do.” Michelle thought this was the first time that the detective had used her first name. But rather than overly familiar, it sounded completely genuine. “And I apologize for the intrusion. To be honest, normally, I would ask for another interview with Keith. But as it turns out, it appears I’ll be off your case for a bit. So hopefully that will give Keith some time to get his feet under him before we need to chat again.”

Michelle was confused. “Why would you be off the case?”

“Well, it’s the Valley Fair Mall attack. They’ve asked me to help with that. But I hope I can wrap up my role there quickly. I still feel there is so much more I need to learn about what happened to you folks that night. So little of it makes any sense. I’m just hoping somebody can give me the missing piece.”

Michelle took a deep breath and decided she would name the elephant in the room.

“Detective, I suspect what you are really asking is if either Keith or Richard was sleeping with Howard Gunderson. Is that what you want to know?”

The detective sighed, and for a moment there was silence on the line.

Bingo, Michelle thought.

“Well, as I’m sure you can appreciate, it’s not something we can discount. And it’s not something I’d ask lightly. It is also something that Howard himself has vehemently denied. But of course, that alone doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” She took a deep breath before continuing. And when she did, there was a note of formality in her voice. As if she was reading from a procedure manual. “All I can say is, at this point, neither Mr. Woo nor the victim are subjects of our investigation.”

The formality of that phrase sent a chill up Michelle’s spine. And the Detective changed the subject rather suddenly, as if she too was uncomfortable with the last thing she said.

“In any case, despite the craziness at the Department right now, things are still on track for Gunderson’s arraignment. The next step is that there will be a hearing for him in a couple days, and that is where he’ll be formally charged with Dr. Pratt’s murder. It will be his first appearance before a judge. And that also means it will be time for me to close the investigative file on the case. If I can’t learn anything new… Well, the District Attorney doesn’t need a motive to charge Gunderson with First Degree Murder, so I’m sure they’ll just move forward. We may not know why he did it. But that he did is open and shut.”

“Detective, this may sound like a strange question. But… will that hearing you mentioned be open to the public?”

“Yes, First Appearances are always open to the public, unless the judge says otherwise. I have no reason to think he will in this case.”

“Will you need me or Keith to make a statement of any kind at the hearing?”

“No, that won’t be necessary. It’s just a formality, really. You don’t need to be there, and neither does Keith.”

“The reason I mention it is… Keith has asked me about it. I was surprised, but I think he’s struggling to make sense of this, far more than you and me. Pil and I have told him we don’t think it’s a good idea for him to go to any hearings, but he insists he wants to. I think he needs to see the boy who killed his husband in person. Not because he wants to say or do anything. But I think it’s something he needs to do to make it feel more real.”

Grayson understood that immediately. “It’s something we hear all the time. In fact, the reason I told you was that I wanted Keith to know he had the opportunity to be there, if he wanted to. Hearings like this can be really important for victims, to gain closure. It might be good for both of you to be there.”

“Will there be reporters?”

“Well, the good news is that with this massacre at Valley Fair Mall sucking up all the news cycles, there may not be much in terms of press there. Hopefully Keith can just show up to watch and not be bothered.”

“Thank you, Detective,” Michelle said with a sigh. “You’ve been very kind.”

“You’re welcome. Ever since I interviewed you both the day of the murder, I’ve been worried about Keith. I’ve seen victims distraught after a crime. Sometimes, the devastation they feel can be really horrible and debilitating. But I don’t know if I have ever seen anyone that seemed as…” she searched for the word. “That seemed as fragile as Keith. Or as devastated. I really want to make sure he’s doing okay. If he needs counseling or other support services, I’d be glad to get a social worker out to talk to him.”

Michelle was touched by the compassionate tone in the Detective’s voice. “I don’t think the social worker is necessary. I’ve already told Keith we can help him find counseling or anything else he needs. But mostly, I just think he needs time. He’s still in a very dark place. But we’re hopeful. He’s just desperate to know why this happened. Once he does, I think he can begin to pull his life together.”

“I know you and your husband can help him with that.” Something in the Detective’s voice told Michelle that she really wasn’t sure of that at all.

“Detective, I think I need to say one more thing. I can understand why you’d think Richard may be involved in this, but let me be as frank and clear as I can. Richard was a lot of things. And he was not the easiest man in the world to get along with. He was often brash and arrogant and conceited. But I have no reason to believe he was anything other than honest with Keith. I know they both played around a bit outside of their relationship, but that’s not uncommon for gay men, to be honest. I know Richard shared everything with Keith, because Keith shared everything with me. And I just can’t believe that there was anything going on between Richard and that boy.”

Carla paused just a beat too long. “Okay. I accept that. At least, until I have the slightest indication that Richard and Howard might have known each other, which I honestly don’t at this point. Howard denies it, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest it in any of the evidence we’ve uncovered so far. But we have to keep it on the table. I’m sure you understand.”

“I do,” Michelle said with a sigh. “Detective, it’s very kind of you to continue working this case, with all that is happening. You must all be working overtime.”

“We are, but I still can’t stop thinking about you and Keith, and this case. So much of it just makes no sense.” After a pause, the Detective added, “It’s clear that Keith loved Richard very much.”

“More than anything in the world, Detective. And despite his flaws, I truly believe Richard loved Keith too.”

“Please give Keith my best and remind him we’re here if any of you need anything. Keith can call me anytime, if you think it would help.”

“Thank you, Carla.” Michelle said, suddenly feeling comfortable using the Detective’s first name. “If there isn’t anything else, I have to go. We’re taking Keith to the funeral home this afternoon, to make arrangements, and I have groceries in the car I have to deliver.”

“I understand. I’ll check in as soon as I have anything new to report.”

“And we all have your number. If any of us thinks of anything more than might help, we’ll call right away.”

Michelle said goodbye and hung up the phone. She tried to put her phone back in her pocket, but her hand had resumed its shaking. On the third attempt, she finally succeeded.

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.

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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. His poems and short stories have appeared or journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre, Apparition Literary Journal, Grain, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He loves hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. All of the trilogy's over 207 chapters are available there for subscribers, and new poems, short stories, and other content is posted there every Friday.

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