June 7, 11:00 am
They walked together up through the Avenues, as they had hundreds of times. But this time, Keith walked alone. Richard could feel that solitude emanating from his lover like a toxic cloud. To the rest of the world, Keith looked almost fine—even stopping now and then to pet a dog, or say hello to a neighbor. But his lover’s repressed grief made it feel as if they were walking through deep snow, or against a heavy headwind.
Keith’s desire to make his life return to normal was heroic. Mostly, he appeared successful. But there were cracks on the surface, and those moments of doubt and fear that Richard saw flash across his lover’s face pained him deeply. Keith kept moving forward through sheer willpower.
When they reached the library, Keith had to endure all the expressions of sympathy and sadness from his co-workers that Richard had expected. He suspected Keith was probably hating all the uncomfortable concern, and he wished with all his might that he could just pull Keith aside and spare him all the fawning and touching, which was only making things worse. He imagined Keith pulling him aside and saying, “I know they mean well, but I wish they’d all just go away and let me shelve some books.”
Richard would likely respond with something vaguely inappropriate or rude, and Keith would pat his cheek in his charming and yet also condescending way.
Richard would have given anything for just thirty seconds of that kind of conversation. But Keith had to bear this alone, and there was nothing Richard could do to help him.
Finally, Keith loaded up a cart of returned books and headed out to the stacks. It was clearly a relief for him to get out of the Circulation department and be alone with his books. Richard trailed behind and watched him going about his job.
It’s funny, Richard thought. But in all these years, I’ve never watched Keith at work. Why didn’t I? He’s really good at what he does.
Yet what Keith did, although necessary, also became boring to Richard very quickly. They were in a remote part of the stacks on the third floor, and the only good part about it was that the repetitive work quickly drained an enormous amount of the tension from his lover’s eyes. It was almost possible to imagine a time when Keith would be past all this pain.
Richard was ashamed to admit it, but after about thirty minutes he couldn’t take much more standing around and watching Keith pick up a book, scan the shelf, and put it back in the right place. The aisles of the stacks were narrow, and there wasn’t any place to sit. He could look at the book spines, but if he found one that was interesting, he couldn’t even pull it off the shelf to check it out—although he caught himself trying, over and over, as if he couldn’t quite get that fact into his head.
And that was when he saw the ghost.
He knew it was another ghost immediately, as it passed the row where Keith was working, because it was almost stereotypical. At first, all he saw was a white shape, moving past the end of the aisle. He rushed out in time to see an old man turn into the next row, and at first, all he could see was the back of a head, and the trailing form of a brilliant white sheet that the ghost wore like a cape, tied in a knot at his neck. Richard raced to catch up, and found the man running a finger down a line of books, carefully reading each title.
And Richard could see the ghost’s face.
He was, or had been, an older man. Perhaps in his eighties. He looked very pale and drawn, as if he had died of some wasting disease. The sallow cheeks and dark, sunken eyes reminded him of his mother in her last days, wasting away from cancer. Now that he was closer, Richard could see that the man was wearing a hospital gown, visible underneath the white sheet. His feet were bare, and his toenails yellow and claw-like. But despite his appearance, the man moved with agility and grace, defying the withered body that looked like it could barely have crawled out of a hospital bed.
There was no violence in this ghost, unlike with the little girl. And Richard wasn’t emotionally distraught and caught off guard, the way he was with the old woman. Now he was simply fascinated.
Richard followed the man, who continued strolling through the stacks, just running his free hand over the book spines, his head cocked slightly to the side, as if he was reading them as he walked. If it hadn’t been for his withered appearance and flowing bedsheet, he could have been any old professor from the University, pursuing some unknown and obscure research project.
Soon, the figure led him into a study area, where a dozen students were hunched over their books and computers at individual study carrels.
Three of them had ghosts standing behind them.
Richard looked at the tableau for a long time, without saying a word, as the old man disappeared back into the stacks. He had been conditioned to be quiet in the library, but realized how silly that was now. So he shouted.
“Hey! Hey you ghosts! Can any of you hear me?”
There was not even a flicker of reaction from any of them. The ghosts were simply hunched over the students, reading the books over their shoulders, or gazing at what was scrolling across their screens. They seemed utterly enraptured by the activity, and none of them even glanced his way.
The closest ghost was the most dramatic. She was a nude woman—not young, but she appeared to have died in reasonably good health. Her breasts were still shapely, and the skin on her thighs was just beginning to sag. Richard could see nothing on her body that showed her mode of death. Her long hair hung over her neck and rested lightly on the shoulders of the young man she had chosen. One hand rested lightly on the boy’s back, and the other supported her on the desk as she leaned forward, one breast against the boy’s ear. And even though her hair hung over the boy’s eyes, he didn’t seem to notice. He just turned the pages of the book he was reading, which appeared to be something on organic chemistry.
Richard reached out to touch the woman, and as he expected, his hand swished through her as if she was a construct of light and shadow.
Two carrels down was a middle-aged African American gentleman, who looked thoroughly dapper in his suit and porkpie hat. He had a cane, and nothing gave away the fact that he was a ghost except the knitted woolen shawl around his shoulders. It was a woman’s shawl, and Richard wondered if some passer-by had seen this man dying, and to comfort him, had wrapped her knitted shawl around his shoulders.
Across the carrels, on the other side, was a little boy. He couldn’t have been older than three, and in fact, he was so small that he had actually climbed up onto the carrel of the woman he was watching. He sat there cross-legged, his chin resting in his palm, as he stared at the woman’s computer. With a start, he realized he recognized the woman. She was a professor in the English department, and she was writing a paper on her computer. He could see the title on the top of each page: “Keats, Shelley, Romanticism, Pragmatism: the Imaginary Initiation.”
The little boy studied her screen with such rapt attention and such stillness that he looked almost like a little statue. He was dressed in Mickey Mouse pajamas that showed the cartoon character the way he looked in the 1950s. And there was a dark stain of blood under the boy’s left arm that ran down to his waist, as if he had fallen on something sharp. Like the naked woman. Richard’s hand passed through the boy easily.
The innocence of the little boy and the stain of blood on his side caused Richard to step back and catch his breath, in a way that none of the other ghosts had. There was a tragedy in this little boy, including parents and probably siblings, who had mourned, or perhaps even caused, his death. But it was a story Richard would never know, and a story that had likely occurred at least a half century ago.
Richard stepped back from the study area and looked at the three ghosts and their objects of attention. He imagined these sad ghosts spending an eternity there in the library. Day after day, reading over the shoulders of the students and patrons. They would have no choice in what they read, or at least very little. But they would have the time to absorb and learn amazing things, from literature to science. And if they were to be here for decades or generations, he could imagine these minds becoming filled with the most powerful knowledge and insight ever given to man. One of these ghosts could be an Einstein, or Spinoza, or Faraday. Their knowledge would be locked up in their minds forever, but no less impressive for that.
The old man in the hospital gown crossed through the study area, his sheet dragging behind him, not making a single sound as he disappeared into another aisle. Was he making poems of the book titles in his head? Or just memorizing them to create a reading list that would last a century?
Wandering freely now, Richard discovered that these four ghosts were just the tiniest fraction of the haunting that was going on in the library. Finally, he had found a place where the ghosts congregated! He went up and down through the levels of the stacks, counting them, and trying to touch them. Soon, he was laughing. So many of these ghosts looked obsessed and alone and trapped here in this building. But somehow, the scene gave him hope. They weren’t just doomed to go mad and wander aimlessly through the years. These ghosts were actually doing something. They actually had lives, even though they were lives such as he had never contemplated. He could almost feel a joy in the world they had made for themselves.
He laughed. For thirty years Richard had spent many hours every week in this library. To imagine the dead had been surrounding him the whole time! Had the ghosts been watching while he researched his book on Patanjali? Had they been silently reading and judging him as he typed out his notes on language evolution and extinction? The whole thing was so absurd, that all he could do was sink into a chair and roar with laughter. He looked around, and saw he was in the middle of the main reading room now, and there were a hundred students and probably a dozen or more ghosts around him. And not a one paid any attention to the laughing specter in their midst.
Richard became so enamored with exploring the library, and counting the ghosts, that he totally lost track of time. When he looked out the window some hours later, he realized it was late afternoon. And he tuned his radar back to find Keith.
And he was gone.
In the aisle where Keith had been shelving books, Richard found his book truck. It was mostly empty, but two other interns had arrived, and were shelving the last books on the cart. As he arrived, he overheard their conversation.
“It was just too early for him to come back,” one of the young women said.
“I know,” her companion replied. “He looked so pale. I’m glad he decided to go home.”
“God damn it!” Richard screamed, almost in the face of the women. He had failed Keith again! So far, in less than forty-eight hours, he’d run from Keith once, watched him drive away twice, and now lost track of him completely. He was doing a pretty pathetic job fulfilling his resolution to stay with the man he loved.
Richard was trembling with rage at himself, as he located the tug that told him in which direction Keith had gone, and ran after him.
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.