June 7, 4:13 pm
When they arrived back at the house, it was quiet. And Richard was grateful for that. After seeing the ghosts in the library he was emotionally, if not physically, exhausted, and all he wanted to do was spend a quiet evening at home with the man he loved.
And for a time, that was exactly what he had.
As the afternoon slipped away, and Keith read a thin volume of poetry, Richard spent the time just sitting and contemplating what he now knew. He was still torn between feeling sorry for the ghosts that congregated at the library, and feeling hopeful that there was a future for him that could include something more than just watching and waiting.
What kind of scholar could I become, he wondered, if I had all eternity to pursue it? How many languages could I learn? What insights would be possible?
But at the same time, what use was a grand education and vast knowledge for its own sake? Was there any point to pursuing great learning if it all had to be locked forever in his mind? The teacher in Richard was appalled at such an idea. No, knowledge only had value if it could be shared; if it could be used to further the great human adventure.
Richard and Keith’s quiet afternoon was interrupted less than two hours after they arrived home. Michelle drove up in Big Bird, and as Keith met her at the door, Richard saw she was carrying something the size of a toaster. It was a beautiful oak and rosewood box, and on the lid were his initials in filigree gold.
Touching the box gave Richard the same empty sensation he had when he learned that his body had been cremated. He wanted to feel something—whether it was revulsion or joy didn’t really matter, as long as it was something. But instead, he felt nothing. The contents of the box might just as well have been garden dirt.
Keith didn’t open the box to look in, even after Michelle had been there for an hour, and had made tea for them both. The two of them talked quietly over the dining room table, the box of Richard’s ashes between them like a mysterious gift from a stranger.
“I couldn’t stay at work,” Keith told her. “I tried, but after a couple hours, I just felt this anxiety growing in my chest. I pushed through it for as long as I could. But eventually, I just had to leave. I think they understood.”
“I’m sure they did, Pea. You should write to your boss tonight. Tell her you’d like to take a few more days off after all.”
Keith swirled the last of his tea in the cup, as if he was trying to read the leaves. “I think I will,” he said, sounding defeated.
While they talked, Richard saw their eyes kept finding their way back to the box on the table, as if it was a third member of the conversation. Finally, Keith looked up at Michelle, and rested his elbows on the table.
“Did you find out about the hearing tomorrow? The one for Howard Gunderson?”
Michelle leaned back, warming her hands around her still full cup. “I did. In fact, I got a call from Detective Grayson yesterday. I asked her about it, and she said that we could go, if we wanted. I guess it’s open to the public.”
Richard looked at Keith carefully, but his face was unreadable. Michelle was silent, and Richard could tell that she too was unsure what he was going to say.
Finally, Keith downed the last of his tea and put the cup back on the coaster. “I think I’d like to be there. I’d like to go.”
Michelle sighed and looked down at her hands. “Detective Grayson suspected you might. She said it was a common thing. And that sometimes for families…” Richard knew she was about to say “families of murder victims,” but she caught herself. “Sometimes for families, it helps. I guess it provides some sense of closure.”
“I don’t think we’ll have that until we understand why that boy did it. Do you think it was really a gang thing, like they said on TV?”
“I don’t know, honey. I really don’t.”
“Anyway. Yeah. I’d like to go. Will you and Pil be able to come with me?”
“Of course, Pea,” Michelle said, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze.
So, it appears I won’t be going to see my murderer alone, Richard thought. He wasn’t sure if he was glad of that or not. But it didn’t matter. There was nothing he could do about it. And if he needed closure by seeing this boy’s face, then probably Keith did too. He couldn’t begrudge him that.
Michelle stayed for another thirty minutes, but the conversation was slow and maudlin, and Richard couldn’t tell which of the three of them was the most relieved when she finally excused herself to go pick up Pil at work. And as Keith accompanied her to the door, she enfolded him in an enormous hug that lingered for long minutes, while Richard watched uncomfortably.
“I got you a couple of Hungry Man dinners yesterday,” Michelle said. “They’re in your freezer. But if you decide you’d like company later, just walk over. Or call.”
“I will, Mish. But I think I’ll eat and try to get to sleep early.”
Despite the closeness of Keith and Michelle, it was clear to Richard that both of them were simply tired. Tired of the grieving. Tired of the sadness. Tired of being tired. And they both knew it wasn’t over—that there was still the hearing to face tomorrow, the funeral, and God knew what else after that.
Richard realized he was glad that Keith was going to the hearing. If he had to face this, and Keith felt he did as well, then they might as well face it together.
Michelle left, and Richard could see that it was dusk outside now.
Later that night, over a microwaved dinner, Keith wrote that e-mail to his boss. He told her he was sorry for leaving so suddenly earlier in the day, and he asked for a few more days off.
Although Keith could have easily written the e-mail from his phone, he instead sat down at Richard’s computer. It felt odd for Richard to watch Keith sitting in his chair, behind his desk. He couldn’t remember the last time that Keith had used a computer at home. He’d never bothered to have one of his own, because he simply didn’t do much that required one. Richard had been waiting for him to get more serious about his poetry, so he could give Keith a computer to transcribe it on.
But he had waited too long.
Richard wanted to believe that Keith felt closer to him while sitting at his desk, but then he realized it was no longer his desk, or even his office. Maybe Keith was trying, subconsciously, to make the space his own.
Richard sat on the desk next to Keith as he wrote and sent his e-mail, and then as he sat and stared at Richard’s bookshelves, which surrounded his desk like the walls of a tomb. Without a word, Keith got up and walked straight to the spot on the shelves that Richard had been staring at the day before, and ran his fingers down to the copy of Leaves of Grass. To Richard’s surprise, Keith slipped it off the shelf, and then out of the protective box. They’d looked at the book together many times, but something tonight made Keith open the cover and finger the torn scrap of paper from where the title page had been ripped out. Keith’s eyes soon lost their focus, and he stood for long minutes, just staring at the book, his expression slack and unreadable. He stood and stared until Richard wanted to scream. Then, without a word, he put the book back into its box, re-shelved it, and left the office.
Nightfall marked the beginning of Richard’s third day.
It had now been over forty-eight hours since he had returned from the dead. And he felt that his mind was much sharper than it had been since he came back. In fact, he was beginning to believe that the danger of madness was receding, and that his mind was making logical leaps that would have escaped him just a week ago. Something about death had activated a mental clarity and an ability to perceive connections like he had never known. The feeling was in stark contrast to the helpless and hopeless feeling that had plagued him for much of the past two days.
And it isn’t just a feeling of insight, Richard thought. It’s almost a feeling of… power.
Lying in bed with Keith, Richard wondered what came next. He projected himself into the future, to a time when Keith was old. Even to the day when Keith died. As horrible as that prospect had always seemed, he could now face it squarely, without blinking.
Yes, there would be a time when everything and everyone he loved as a living person would be gone. In the end, would he spend his existence with that motley collection of ghosts in the library, staring at books, and longing for the touch of the beautiful young men who were reading Whitman and Ginsberg? It felt like a possibility, and there was actually comfort in the notion.
Keith had not wept since the night they had both stood over his coffin. Even after he left the library in a rush, and Richard caught up with him as he passed the Pie Pizzeria off the President’s circle, he had not been crying. There was now just a tired and mournful look in his eyes, and behind that pain, Richard could feel the man he loved trying desperately to stay afloat, and imagine a future of his own.
That search was something the two of them now had in common.
That night, Richard decided that the most peaceful thing he could do was just to hold Keith’s hand while he slept. Keith extended his right hand out onto Richard’s pillow, palm up, as if in supplication. And Richard took it gently and held it as he stared into the darkness.
He held Keith’s hand. But his mind was far away.
He couldn’t stop thinking about the little ghost girl in the park. She had actually possessed that little boy. He could think of no better word than that, despite the horror movie connotations. The boy’s head hadn’t spun around and he hadn’t spit out pea soup. But she had possessed him, nonetheless. She had controlled his body and made him do horrible and violent things. Richard could picture that toy truck in the boy’s hand, coming down so relentlessly on his friend’s head. He could still see the blood splattered in the sand, and the blank expression on the boy’s face.
But the little girl had somehow been ejected from the boy, suddenly and perhaps against her will, when the mother jerked violently against the boy’s arm. The girl had looked confused for a moment, but also thrilled, like the feeling of residing in actual flesh again had been exquisite.
If I had the ability to possess a living person, would I do it?
No, that wasn’t the question he wanted to ask himself, and he took a deep breath before finally asking what he really wanted to know.
Would I possess someone, if it meant that I could be with Keith again?
The very idea stole his breath for a moment. It sounded electrifying, but in a forbidden way. He knew that to possess someone would be an assault—had to be an assault. It would violate their bodily autonomy, if not their spiritual autonomy as well. Would he enter someone without their permission, just as the little girl did? Did he have that in him? Would he be willing to do something so transgressive, if it meant being alive again? The little girl had only possessed the boy for a few seconds. But perhaps that would be enough, if it truly meant being a living person in the world again. If it meant being able to touch Keith’s face and look into his eyes, perhaps a moment would be enough.
No, I couldn’t do it, Richard decided. It would be a violation of an innocent. I don’t have the right to do that to anyone. At least, not someone who doesn’t have an opportunity to provide consent.
He winced, realizing that he was already creating scenarios—circumstances where he would allow himself to take over someone else’s body. He knew it was a case of desperately rationalizing something forbidden, but he couldn’t stop.
Maybe it’s like sex. It’s rape if you do it without consent. But if the other person is willing… If the other person opened themselves up to me…
But that was ridiculous. How could he ever communicate with a living person about such a thing? How could he ever get consent? They couldn’t see him, they couldn’t hear him. That kind of consent would be impossible. No, if it happened, it would have to be his choice, and his alone.
The idea thrilled him, but it also terrified him at the same time. And soon his thoughts were tumbling together, unrestrained.
I could possess a handsome younger man. Someone Keith’s own age, who he would immediately find attractive. I’d have to make us meet somewhere neutral for the first time, long enough after he had finished mourning me that he was ready to get on with his life. I know I could say all the right things to win him again. Courting him a second time would be easy. I’d win his heart, and then I’d stay in my new, young body forever. I’d dedicate my life to taking care of Keith and making sure he never wanted for anything. I’d make sure he was always protected, and this time I’d never, ever leave him again. We’d grow old together, and when we died, there would be no regrets. We’d have spent our lives together, and we’d be together at the end, just the way we always wanted…
He dropped Keith’s hand and bolted from the bed, rushing across the room, pounding the heels of his hands against his forehead.
“Stop it! Just stop it!” he shouted into the dark room.
It terrified him to realize that he absolutely had it in him to violate an innocent. If he had the power, he could absolutely take someone’s body from them. He could take their very life. As much as it appalled him to believe himself capable of such a thing, he also knew that he would do almost anything to be with Keith again.
Collapsing against the wall, he turned back to Keith’s shape, now restless in the bed, his hand flexing and grasping against Richard’s pillow like he was trying to escape from quicksand.
No, I won’t do it. I won’t be a demon, possessing someone innocent. Not even to be with Keith. I can’t do it. I won’t! I’d never take someone against their will. Keith needs to heal and move on…
Richard’s arms fell to his sides, and he stared at Keith’s hand, now illuminated in a shaft of moonlight.
There is only one person on earth who would ever give themselves to me willingly. And he’s lying in that bed. Only Keith.
Keith would invite me in, if he could.
The sudden thought of it was so shocking that he went rigid against the wall, like he’d been given an electric shock. Yes, possession was like a rape. If there was no consent, it was a violation… But what if there was consent? Would Keith allow him to make love to him, not using the body of another person, but by sharing his own?
Of course! That’s the solution! Maybe I’m wrong to think of possession as a violation. Maybe, with someone you love—someone who actually wants you there, it would be the ultimate love-making—the ultimate union of two souls into one. Maybe that’s how Keith and I can truly be together again. What if that is our destiny? What if that is why I’ve come back?
He crawled quickly back to the bed, and grasped Keith’s hand again, kneeling beside the bed as if he was a little boy in prayer, holding the stone-like hand of his lover, which instantly calmed at his touch.
So, how did the little girl do it?
He had seen so little and had not been paying attention at the critical moment. She had just been there one minute, close to the boy, just as he was close to Keith now. And then she was just… gone.
Think! What did she do? What’s the secret?
Richard pulled close to Keith and held his hand tighter. He tried to calm his racing thoughts and follow the path of the tug that existed between them, to see if it was a pathway he could follow into his lover. He wasn’t sure he would walk such a path if it presented itself, but he just wanted to know whether it was there.
And even though he could sense that there must be a way for him, just as there was for the little girl in the park, Richard could not find it. He reached and explored and tried to push his mind across the chasm between him and his sleeping lover. But nothing he did opened any gates.
For more than an hour he struggled.
Keith became more restless and kept reaching his free hand over to scratch at the back of the hand that Richard held. But no path opened. It felt like a thread under a locked door. He followed it to that door, but the door wouldn’t open.
There is clearly something I need to do. Or something I need to know…
Exhausted, Richard pulled away.
The second he rolled away from Keith, a wave of disgust rolled through him. It was so strong that Richard felt physically nauseous, and ran to the bathroom, thinking that he might actually vomit. Although he had no idea what he could throw up, considering he hadn’t eaten since the day he died, and his body wasn’t even real.
Slowly, the feeling of nausea passed, but the disgust at himself lingered.
I saw what that little girl did with that boy. What she was trying to do wasn’t a communion, it was a violation. I know that’s true, no matter how much I might want to deny it. And here I am, trying desperately to do to Keith what that little girl did to that innocent boy.
He longed for Keith, but what Richard had just tried to do was not something Keith could ever consent to. And God knows what would have happened to Keith’s wounded mind if he had succeeded.
Richard felt so ashamed that he spent the rest of the night in the bathroom, his head in his hands, feeling more miserable than he had felt since he came back from the dead.
Keith continued to sleep. Richard could see him in the dim glow of the streetlight, his hand on the pillow, still open and inviting.
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.