June 7, 7:30 am
In the morning, it was almost possible for Richard to pretend that he wasn’t dead.
For a time, he wandered around the house after Keith, trying to do exactly that. He tried calling out things to Keith like he might normally shout out in the morning. They were strange things; pretty much whatever popped into his head in the moment.
“How did you sleep, sweet cub?”
“Hon, have you seen my orange tie?”
“What’s the weather supposed to be like today?”
“Hey, Baby Bear, let’s get dinner on campus tonight before coming home.”
But he quickly grew tired of his one-sided banter, and even to his ears he sounded a little crazy. He had no need for his orange tie, and couldn’t have opened the drawer to look for it, anyway. And banter about a dinner he would never eat again made him feel even more like a ghost.
You’re trying too hard, Richard. Take a breath.
Keith, for his part, appeared to be going about his daily morning routine almost as if everything was normal. That was as long as you didn’t look into his eyes to see the emptiness there. He took a shower, but Richard still couldn’t bear the agony he knew would come if he looked on his partner’s naked body, so he had taken those few minutes to walk across the hall to his office.
Richard kept a beautiful home office, if he did say so himself. He’d decorated it in a very conservative style, and friends had told him it could pass for a lawyer’s office, rather than that of a college professor. He’d opted for an ornate wooden table, rather than a traditional desk, and behind it he had an antique credenza that kept most of his office supplies. The desk was sparse, except for his computer, and a few framed photos. He did most of his scholarship on line now, so he had very little in terms of printed books or articles on the desk.
But he still loved his books, and two of the room’s walls were lined with floor to ceiling cherry-wood bookcases. They contained everything from scholarly tomes on linguistics to complete collections of Zane Grey westerns and Ray Bradbury paperbacks. Walking along his bookcase, Richard ran his fingers down their spines, listening for the water to stop running in Keith’s shower. And nestled among a batch of poetry he saw his very rare 1856 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It was in an archival, acid-free slip case that he’d had specially made by the Preservation department at the Marriott Library. The book was one of his most prized possessions, one of only a thousand copies ever printed, and passed down in his family for generations. It was probably worth more than any car he had ever bought, despite the missing title page, and the overall poor condition. He was seized with a desire to pull it off the shelf and thumb through those old, brittle pages. But he knew he’d never thumb through another book, ever again.
After his shower, Keith went downstairs, had his breakfast, and took his coffee into the living room. Richard had finally learned to ignore the blood tree on the wall and the pool of gore on the carpet, although he was still careful to step around it. He knew if he was going to stay in this house, he’d have to find a way to cope with this constant reminder of his gruesome death.
For a time that morning, Keith just sat in his big, overstuffed recliner with a cup of coffee, alternately reading Ariel by Sylvia Plath (for probably the hundredth time, Richard thought) and jotting notes in his journal—probably ideas or snatches of poetry that Plath inspired. Richard sat across from him on the couch, and just watched him; wishing he too could have a cup of coffee to start the morning.
If it hadn’t been that Richard was dead, and that Keith was going to spend his life in this house alone, it looked like a pretty typical morning on any day off Keith and Richard had spent in the past decade. But the fidgeting in Keith’s fingers and the faraway look in his eyes told Richard that no matter what normality he tried to bring to his day, his husband knew nothing would ever be normal again.
Plainly anxious and troubled, Keith put down the book and grabbed the remote. They rarely watched TV downstairs, and almost never in the morning. They both preferred to snuggle in bed while watching a movie or a TV show before sleeping. Keith had often asked about getting rid of the TV in the living room, but so far, Richard had always resisted the suggestion. It could have been simply out of habit, or perhaps because there had always been a TV in this room, ever since Richard was a child.
He wondered if Keith would now, finally, get rid of the TV and make this his reading room.
He was surprised when Keith turned on the local news channel. Richard had always been a bit of a news junkie, while Keith had cared very little for the goings-on in the world. But now, his husband sat and watched the TV with a blank expression. The morning news report was just coming on.
What Richard heard finally tore his attention away from Keith.
He had learned about the massacre at the theater, when he overheard the girls gossiping about it in Liberty Park. But to be honest, his mind at that point hadn’t been absorbing much. He had been so consumed with his own struggle that any drama elsewhere in Salt Lake City didn’t penetrate his consciousness. But what he now gleaned from the newscaster was that there was a lot going on in Salt Lake City, of which his own murder might be the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
Most of the morning news was about the massacre at the theater, but there were also a series of other, equally ominous news reports. As they unfolded upon the screen, Richard sank down on the couch next to Keith, and stared at the parade of horrors.
“Officials at Cottonwood High School have asked for help from the community in responding to a spike in youth suicide. Over the past two months, six students at the school have taken their own lives. The manner of death of the students is not being discussed by authorities, except to say that the method was similar for all six. Salt Lake City Social Services has promised to send additional counseling resources to the high school, as well as psychologists to study why such a horrible outbreak has happened in this regularly placid Salt Lake City Neighborhood.”
Cottonwood high was near where Pil worked, at the youth crisis line, where he had once volunteered. He could imagine that things were tense at the crisis line right now. The kids in the city weren’t immune to the stresses of daily living, and they also had challenges unique to being in a rather backwards and repressive culture. But still, a wave of youth suicide was relatively uncommon in Utah.
A second news anchor had taken over and moved on to another story.
“A mother in Draper is in custody this morning, charged with the drowning death of her two-month-old baby. Authorities charge she drowned the child in the family bathtub, while her husband and children were sleeping.”
Okay, Richard thought. As gruesome as it is, that kind of thing can happen anywhere. He kept watching through a commercial break, and then the anchors were back.
“Eighty-nine-year-old Mabel Hunt is charged with aggravated assault, after she poisoned three residents at her nursing home in Glendale yesterday.”
A few minutes later: “Two children are dead this morning, after being struck by a train on their way to school. Our reporter, Morgan Jensen, is on the scene.”
Jensen was a staple on KUTV, mostly reporting the crime beat. It seemed strange that she was reporting on a train accident. And as she began to describe the scene, Richard could tell that this incident truly unsettled her.
“Thanks Brenda,” Jensen said, taking the hand-off from the anchor. “I wasn’t able to talk to the conductor who was driving the train, for obvious reasons. But I did talk with Andy Sorensen, who was the assistant conductor on the westbound Union Pacific train, when the children were killed.”
The shot switched to a prerecorded interview with a tall, pale man with a white mustache and stereotypical overalls and a greasy gray conductor’s hat. He looked badly shaken.
“I tell ya, I’ve never seen anything like it. We saw the kids from a long way back. They were watching the train approach, and waving at it, the way kids do. We even tooted the horn for them. When they did that thing.” The conductor made the gesture with his arm in the air. The one that every child who lived in the country had made at passing freight trains. “But at the last second, the little girl picked up the boy, and threw him and then herself onto the tracks in front of the train. I mean, it was literally in that last second, just as we were getting ready to pass them. There was no way to stop. Hell, we couldn’t have stopped even if we’d had a quarter mile of warning.” He paused, and Richard saw him blink back some tears. “I saw their faces. Both of them, just before the train hit. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get those faces out of my mind.”
The camera cut back to the live shot, with the reporter consulting her notebook. Next to her was a police officer, looking stiff and uncomfortable with being on camera.
“With me now is Officer William Craig, who was one of the first responders on the scene. Officer Craig, do you have any idea how this accident happened?”
The cop just looked at her, and then dropped his gaze. “I’m not sure we’ll ever know. The whole thing just doesn’t make any damn sense. Pardon my French. But in any case, we won’t have anything to report until after the investigation. It’s just a horrible, senseless tragedy.”
By this point, Richard had collapsed back onto the hard couch. These weren’t typical news stories for Salt Lake City. It had never been a violent town, at least not like other comparably sized cities. They would have incidents like this from time to time, but he’d never seen a newscast full of that much gruesome death.
Morgan Jensen was talking now to the anchor, back in the studio, and they both looked almost frightened. In their banter, Richard could sense more than just sadness at the tragedies. He could also sense a bit of fear on both their parts. Perhaps a sense that something was very wrong, and out of balance, in Salt Lake City.
“Morgan, before I let you go, can you tell us if there are any new developments in the case of Howard Gunderson?”
Richard was beginning to lose interest in the TV, in favor of his racing thoughts. But what happened next riveted his attention, and made him jump to his feet.
He was suddenly staring at his own face in a box on the screen. It looked like the photo from his University ID; a few years old, but definitely him. And next to it was another face on the split screen.
They are talking about my murder.
The face in the mug shot must have been the guy who shot him. But no, it wasn’t a guy. He looked like he was still a kid. Maybe eighteen or twenty years old. Handsome, in a high school jock kind of way.
The caption on the bottom of the screen gave him a name.
He realized the reporter was still speaking. He tried to tune back into the sound of her voice.
“…little new to report. We did receive word with this morning’s court docket that Howard Gunderson will have his first appearance and formal arraignment at Matheson Courthouse tomorrow. Unfortunately, we still have no word from the SLPD as to a possible motive for the murder of Richard Pratt, who, as you will recall, was a respected member of the faculty in the Linguistics Department at the University of Utah. Unofficially, we have heard from courthouse sources that the murder may have been random, and perhaps was committed as part of a gang initiation ritual…”
Matheson Courthouse. Tomorrow.
Staring at the TV, Richard rolled the name of his murderer around in his mind.
The name meant nothing to him, and neither did the face in the mugshot. He tried to think back, if he had ever heard that name before, or seen that face. One of his students, perhaps? But no, he drew a complete blank. He didn’t know that boy, and he was sure he’d remember him if he had, the way he always remembered handsome young men.
So why would a complete stranger want to kill me?
The reporter seemed unsure of a motive as well, despite her floating the idea of a gang initiation. Was that possible? It seemed crazy.
In any case, he now knew where to find his murderer, or at least, the man accused of his murder. He would be at the Matheson Courthouse tomorrow. And Richard knew instantly that he would be there. His promise to stay with Keith was important and sincere, but he had ventured outside last night. He knew he would give himself enough latitude to go to the hearing. He would have to leave long enough to at least look on this boy’s face. The mystery of his own death was festering in his mind, and hadn’t he always heard that ghosts were driven to find their murderers? It only made sense.
His reverie was broken by his realization that the TV had suddenly been switched off. And he was hit by a wave of guilt. He had been so entranced at seeing his own face on the TV, and the possibility that he would finally get some answers as to his death, that he hadn’t even glanced at Keith. He could only imagine what it must have been like for Keith to see that news report. To see the face of the man who had killed his lover, and to see that picture of Richard next to it on the screen… It must have brought back all the pain he was trying to suppress.
Unless, of course, he had turned on the TV specifically to see that report…
By the time he’d turned to Keith, his lover had stood up and walked to the window. He stood staring at the plywood, as if he was staring out into the street, and he had his phone up to his ear. Richard knew immediately that he was calling Michelle.
“Hey honey, it’s me… No, I’m fine. In fact, I’m just calling to tell you that I think I’ll go in to work today.” He paused, and Richard could hear the concerned buzz of Michelle’s voice on the line. “No, I really don’t need a ride. The walk will probably do me good. I need to get out. And it’s a beautiful day.” Keith turned back to the room, and although his voice sounded strong, his face belied the strain he was feeling. More buzzing from Michelle. “Really, Pod, I’m fine. I’m just…” there was a tiny hitch in his voice, but his eyes were dry. “I’m just trying to get things back on track. I’m just trying… Just trying to act like things are normal. Even if they aren’t.”
Standing next to Keith, Richard leaned down and put his head against the earpiece of the phone so he could hear Michelle’s voice clearly.
So much for privacy in a world full of ghosts, he thought.
“Honey, it’s still too early to be going back,” Michelle said, her voice soft and concerned. “They told you that you can have some more days. Why don’t you take them? We could go to a movie or something. Or just go for a drive. Whatever you want.”
“No, honey, what I really need is to just walk up to the library,” Keith said, “shelve some books, and then come home. I know you want to take care of me. But what I really need right now are things to be as normal as I can make them.”
Michelle seemed to think about this for a second, but to her credit, she quickly accepted what Keith was telling her. “Okay, Pea. But call if you need me. I’m home today, and I can come get you at any time, if you decide you need to get out of there.”
“Thanks. Is Pil home today too?”
“No, I’m afraid not. He got a call this morning from the hotline. Did you hear about the suicides at Cottonwood High School? That’s really close to where Pil works. He’s kind of freaked out by it.”
“Did any of those kids call the hotline?”
“I don’t think so. But things have been so crazy there these past few weeks. Pil says the call volume has almost doubled from what it was earlier this spring.”
“They must be doing a good job getting the word out.”
“Yeah, maybe that’s it.” Michelle’s voice sounded as if she didn’t believe that was the explanation at all.
“Job security, I guess,” Keith said.
“I suppose,” Michelle sighed. “Oh, and honey, I was just getting ready to call you,” Michelle added, her voice softer now. “I have some news. Mr. Ingalls called this morning. Richard was cremated some time last night. I guess they got the authorization early in the evening, and did the cremation on the night shift. He said it was probably around three or four in the morning.” She waited for a reply, but Keith was silent now. Richard could see a faraway look in his eyes.
“I was… sleeping,” Keith said, sounding almost as if he regretted that fact.
“Mr. Ingalls said that they would hold onto the ashes until the funeral, unless you want me to go over and pick them up today.”
“If you have time, that would be great,” Keith said. “Thanks, Mish. And thanks for letting me know.”
Richard straightened up, and stepped back from the phone. He was surprised that it made a difference that his body was gone, but it did. Mostly, he was surprised that he didn’t feel it go. Shouldn’t he have? Shouldn’t there have been some kind of connection? It seemed inconceivable that the flesh he’d lived in for fifty-seven years would just suddenly be ashes, and he wouldn’t even feel it go.
He thought back. Around the time his body was being burned he would have been lying naked in the back yard, looking up at the stars. He imagined the smoke from his cremation curling into the very same starry sky that had so greedily accepted his semen.
Keith hung up the phone, and his face was blank. Unreadable. Without waiting, he dialed the phone again, and Richard could tell he was talking to his boss at the Marriott Library. Richard didn’t listen too closely, but he heard Keith say that he would be coming in to shelve books for an hour or two. He knew his boss was reiterating what Michelle had said—that it wasn’t necessary, and that he could take more time. But Keith was as clear with his boss as he had been with his friend. And soon, he hung up the phone, and immediately went upstairs to get dressed for work.
So, I guess we’re going to the University, Richard thought.
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.