June 6, 7:00 pm
Following Keith home was easy. Not only did Richard have his “compass” to guide him, but he also knew that after such an emotionally exhausting afternoon, his husband would need to be home. Their house had always been a refuge and a comfort—for them both.
Richard made his way back slowly, careful to avoid traffic and the possibility of being reset. Another “fatal” accident would be a shortcut home, to be sure, but it was not an experience he ever wanted to have again.
When he got to the house it was still early in the evening. Richard was grateful that Big Bird was nowhere to be seen, which must have meant that Keith had sent Michelle and Pil home so he could be alone.
He entered the house easily now (having finally mastered the trick of passing through solid walls and doors) and found the downstairs empty. There was the detritus of a Wendy’s fast food meal on the kitchen table, but Keith was nowhere to be seen, and the house was quiet.
He found him upstairs, already in bed. The TV on the dresser lent a surreal, shimmering glow to his lover’s drawn features, as he distractedly toyed with the remote.
Richard sat with him as he watched TV. He smiled when he realized Keith was watching the series premier of Heroes on DVD, which they had first watched together years ago. They hadn’t watched the show again since that first time, but Richard wondered if the reason it drew Keith tonight was the memory of the two of them watching it together.
At the time, he had teased Keith that he looked like the character Hiro Nakamura. Keith had shot back that Richard looked like a bearded Matt Parkman. They had playfully argued about it, because Keith indeed did look like the Asian actor, while Richard was nowhere near as chubby (or as handsome) as the cop on the show. But the argument had been fun and flirtatious, filled with tickle fights and laughter. It had eventually turned into a long-running joke between them, and nothing could get Richard laughing faster than Keith throwing his arms in the air, and saying, with an overblown Japanese accent, “I am the master of time and space!”
Richard sat silently through two episodes, and afterward, Keith turned off the TV and did some writing in his journal. More than once Richard leaned over and tried to sneak a look at Keith’s scrawl, but was actually relieved that, between Keith’s poor handwriting and the dim light, he couldn’t make out any words. Somehow, even now, reading his lover’s journal felt like a violation of Keith’s privacy.
Eventually, Keith closed the journal, placed it back in the drawer, and switched off the light.
As his husband slowly settled down to sleep, Richard curled up against his side—ignoring as best he could the hard angles and the pain the wrinkled sheets caused against his hips and ribs. And at first, despite the aches, it was comforting to once again be lying next to his lover. If he closed his eyes, it almost felt… normal.
It took some time for the younger man’s breathing to slow, but soon, Richard was sure that Keith was sleeping deeply. And for that, too, Richard was grateful.
But it also meant that the dark and the silent bedroom left him alone with his thoughts. Soon they were racing in the dark. This was the first time his mind had truly been calm enough for him to contemplate all that had happened since he had returned from the dead.
And he soon wished he didn’t have such a luxury.
Being dead is not at all what I expected, Richard mused. But then sat bolt upright in the bed.
So, what was it that I did expect?
It wasn’t that humans didn’t spend enough time musing over what death meant, or concocting ever more outrageous theories of what came next after the body went cold. Richard was a well-read man, and he knew that the mystery of death had motivated everything from religion to philosophy since time immemorial. Trying to untangle that one impenetrable knot was what animated human thought and progress, throughout recorded history. The product of all that searching had ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous—from transcendent visions of enlightenment to shrill fears of demons hiding behind every bush, waiting to drag you to hell.
As he lay staring into the dark, Richard realized that all those millennia of human striving and desperate yearning had been little more than a futile attempt to come to grips with what death really was all about. What he now knew to be death’s ultimate reality.
Loss, he thought. That’s what death is. Unfathomable, complete, and utter loss. It’s not a mystery after all. It’s just… a tragedy.
All the white sheets at Halloween and the Ouija boards with messages from the other side, all the visions of the white tunnel where God and our lost relatives waited, all the dreams of reincarnation and nirvana, all the longing for a heaven in the clouds, the harps, St. Peter, and the pearly gates—it was all a way to rationalize away what everyone knew was inevitable. All the religion, all the philosophy, all the transcendent yearning—it was all nothing more than a desperate attempt to avoid facing one devastating truth. That in the end, the only thing that endured, was loss.
We’re like the band on the deck of the Titanic, Richard thought. We don’t dare look at the water rising around our feet.
Had he been immune from those self-deceptions? He had always dismissed all that religious and superstitious claptrap as nonsense, and when asked, he would say that he expected nothing at all from death. But that was the standard cop-out of the atheist—that death was simply a switch that shut off everything. It was as convenient and unassailable an answer as heaven or reincarnation, and still did the work of hiding the darker truth: That death was simply unbearable loss.
He had let himself believe that there would be no “self” left to experience that loss. For to face that possibility would have been beyond endurance.
So he too had his own version of the white sheet, the Ouija board, and the delusions of heaven and hell. His distracting, dancing lights were called “oblivion” and “nothingness.” He had been just as foolish as the rest of humanity. None of them had known. Had ever truly known…
But even if I had somehow looked death square in the face, I would have never expected… this.
Here he was, sitting in a dark bedroom, four days after his death, watching his lover sleep. He would never have expected to find himself such a passive witness to the pain and chaos that his death created for the people that he loved. He could never have known that the agony of being that witness would be beyond endurance, and would go on forever. And mostly, he could never have known he would feel so… small. So insignificant. So irrelevant.
And now that the shock had worn off, so strangely numb.
He closed his eyes and listened intently to the sounds of the night, hoping for some telltale noise that only the dead could hear. Sounds like, what? A chain rattling, or a disembodied moan? Whatever he was hoping to hear, all that met his ears was the sound of Keith’s breathing, and the distant tick of the grandfather clock downstairs.
If death is loss, then why am I still here? he wondered. Why have I lost everything except myself? Why am I the one thing that endures, when all else passes away? If I just… go on… then doesn’t my entire life just become meaningless?
Everything that he had ever known in life had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whether it was relationships or architecture or the seasons, or the fucking planet itself. It had been a strangely comforting notion that everything must eventually come to an end. Even while we are so desperately trying to avoid facing that truth, it is the very impermanence of life that gave it meaning, because otherwise life was just a goddamned skipping record with nobody to pick up the needle. Forever.
The room was warm, but a chill ran up his spine. The prospect of forever suddenly overwhelmed his mind to the point where it was in danger of shutting down. The very thought of forever was terrifying, and he longed for some hint that, at some point, all this would be over. At least, his part in it.
Eternal rest, as they say.
Richard realized that he’d been “awake” since his return from the Void. Even though that had been well over twenty-four hours now, there wasn’t a speck of weariness, not an ounce of longing for sleep.
So, is this also what it means to be dead? Not only are you cursed to witness eternity, but you must do so without rest, without sleep, without even a moment to close your eyes and escape the march of time? What kind of Clockwork Orange bullshit is this, anyway?
So, no sleep. No rest, and no end. But yes, tears. And yes, pain.
It was all such a cosmic joke that he actually laughed. And that fact that he still had laughter seemed like such a spark of unexpected hope that he laughed some more. With no one to witness his laughter, or judge him for it, his laughter grew until he was howling and rolling on the bed next to his sleeping lover—laughing with more abandon than he had felt since his death.
Yes, tears. And yes, pain. But also yes: laughter.
And realizing this…. That he had found a moment of joy in death that he’d longed for in life, and that it was a moment that he could never share with Keith, made the laughter change. He buried his face against the back of Keith’s stony neck.
No sleep. No rest. But yes: tears.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.