June 6, 2:30 pm
The last time Billy had hidden from anyone, it was from Frannie and Mattie, playing hide-and-go-seek around the wagon train in the Nebraska territory. He was surprised how quickly stealth came back, after more than a century and a half.
He had found a tree, perhaps twenty yards away from where the new ghost lay on the blanket with the boy and the girl. It was close enough to peek and watch, but he was careful to never emerge too far from the shadows.
Billy knew he had to be cautious. This new ghost, whoever he was, had to be in a state of confusion, and perhaps even shock. He had seen it all before. Typically, there was always a small fraction of the newly dead that came to accept their state pretty quickly. The idea that you are dead was hard to ignore when you suddenly found yourself locked away from everything and everyone you cared about, in a world where you could do nothing but observe. So in one sense, it was an obvious conclusion to come to. But unfortunately, most of the newly dead could not endure that revelation with their minds intact. And he’d never encountered a newly minted ghost that could actually see the other ghosts around him. He had no idea whether gaining the First Gift so early would help this man, or simply drive him more quickly into madness.
The mad ghosts saddened him. They were lost in the labyrinth of their own minds, and could do little more than wander the Hereafter, terrified and confused, for eternity. The Salt Lake Valley was littered with these broken souls, who were little more than shells—their own minds locked in some deep prison of despair.
Even for those that accepted what they were, the journey was difficult. Typically, the ability to see other ghosts did not arrive for years, or sometimes even decades. The First Gift had taken Billy nearly twenty years, and the loneliness of that time had nearly cost him his sanity, as it did for so many others.
But this new ghost was an exception to all that, and Billy couldn’t turn away from him. Clearly, he was new. Likely, he was just a matter of hours or days back from the Vastness. But the fact that he could already see other ghosts made him unique in ways that Billy couldn’t even imagine.
He watched the strange ghost closely.
The man was clearly not a poor person in life. He was dressed in a nice, if bloodied, sweatshirt. His hair was neat, and he had a thick but nicely trimmed dark beard, mostly gone to gray. He was a bit thick around the middle, but not obese. He looked like he probably worked out and kept himself in shape. Maybe a lawyer, Billy thought. Or perhaps a business executive.
After seeing Mattie, the new ghost had run around the park for close to a half hour, touching everyone he could see. Billy knew he was looking for another ghost, trying to distinguish the living from the dead. It was critical to him to prove that Mattie was not some kind of aberration.
Luckily, he didn’t find any.
Not that there weren’t ghosts in Liberty Park. There were. But thankfully, there were few around them that day. The man came very close once, almost discovering his second ghost when he rushed up to what looked like an elderly man and his daughter on a bench. He grabbed the old man’s shoulder as he ran by, but in his frantic state, he did not touch the woman.
Billy knew she was not the man’s daughter, but his wife. And that she had died more than thirty years before. Billy had watched her sink into obsession over her lost husband, and she was never far from him. Her mind was still intact, but barely, and even after thirty years, she had not been granted the First Gift. The new ghost ran past her without being seen.
Eventually, Billy knew, this man would encounter someone who could be identified as a ghost simply on sight. He’d find someone who died naked, or in a hospital smock. Or worse, he’d find one who died violently like himself.
Billy looked at the red-stained sweatshirt that the man was wearing. That amount of blood, he thought, could only have come from a death of exceptional violence.
Billy looked down at his bare feet and chopped off pant leg. This man might not recognize him as a ghost at first, based on his clothing, or even the old-fashioned straw hat he would forever carry or wear. But the missing pant leg and bare feet might give him a clue that something wasn’t right with Billy Travers.
Best, for now to just stay hidden. To just observe.
Eventually, the new ghost had given up, and laid down next to a young man on a blanket. Shortly after, what appeared to be the young man’s girlfriend appeared, and the new ghost watched with sad eyes as the couple embraced and settled back together next to him on the blanket. They stayed that way for a long time, and eventually the girl laid with her head on the boy’s belly, reading her book. The dead man toyed with her hair, and Billy could tell he was talking to them. That, too, was a common thing for a new ghost to do. It was comforting in such vast strangeness to at least hear the familiar sound of your own voice.
He’s filled with such loneliness, Billy thought. Such devastation and loss.
It was a feeling that all ghosts radiated, but there was an especially forlorn quality to this man. Billy could see his sadness in his blank, longing gaze, and the way he laid with his cheek on the boy’s back. He could hear it in the soft buzz of his voice, and the almost feminine way he tried to twirl the frozen locks of the girl’s hair. Watching made Billy’s heart feel heavy. He was touched by the tableau, and the desperate loss he sensed in this man.
And yet, despite the sadness and loneliness, Billy couldn’t help but feel a tiny thrill, a sense of wonder, at the ghost’s very existence.
Why didn’t I sense this ghost’s return? I have always been able to sense when new ones arrive, perhaps once or twice each week. But this one, I had missed.
The sun was descending, and the park was emptier now.
All at once the boy and the girl were on their feet. And the man was sitting up, staring at them. Then, without warning, the new ghost began to shout. His voice carried across the park, loud enough for Billy to hear.
“Kimball? Your name is Kimball?” the man yelled.
Billy stepped from behind the tree. He saw the young woman pull their blanket up from the ground so quickly that it dumped the new ghost into the grass like a sack of laundry.
Stunned, the man was up on his knees, his voice even louder now.
“Your last name is Kimball?” the man screamed.
As the two young people broke into a run through the grass, the man climbed to his feet, his knees clearly weak. He just stared after the departing couple.
Billy decided then that it was time to reveal himself. He didn’t know if it was the right decision, and he was moved to do it more to satisfy his own curiosity than anything. He left the tree and began walking across the lawn toward the new ghost. Not too fast, he thought. I don’t want to spook him. And he laughed at his own weak joke.
He was halfway across the lawn when he heard the man cry out in anguish. It was a long, low, deep moan, and it was sorrowful enough to freeze Billy in his tracks.
The man put his head into his hands, and then bent over and cried out again, before straightening up and calling out. He bellowed a man’s name, with such force that Billy had to fight a desire to turn and run.
“Keith!” the man screamed with such anguish that it almost brought him to his knees. Then a breath. Billy was close enough now to hear what was next, which was quiet, and filled with longing.
“What am I doing here?” He took a rasping breath. “I… I need to go home…”
And then the man was running. Billy considered yelling out for him to stop, but he was moving fast. And instead of calling after him, he just broke into a run and followed.
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.