June 8, 3:00 pm
Big Bird arrived at the Matheson County Courthouse, carrying its three occupants, at exactly 3:00 pm.
If anybody had been watching—which they weren’t—they would have likely remarked at the strange trio that emerged from the yellow monstrosity. A huge Hawaiian man with long curly hair, a round face, and tattoos got out of the back seat, and a petite blond woman in a conservative gray pantsuit got out of the driver’s side. If the observer had stayed to watch, they would have seen the big man open the passenger door, and a short, round, chubby Asian man get out. Of the three, only the woman wore sunglasses. All three stopped at the side of the car for a moment, and the big man enfolded both the woman and the chubby man in his tattooed arms.
What an observer, or at least a living observer, would not have noticed was the older bearded man who climbed off the SUV’s roof, and then slid on his butt down the Chevy’s big yellow hood. He hurried after the trio toward the front entrance of the courthouse.
Richard had considered running behind the SUV, and he had even considered trying to sneak into the vehicle while a door was open. But the possibility that a door might get slammed on his leg and send him back to Go without collecting his $200 made him decide that his best option was just to climb up onto the roof rack, where Pil sometimes tied the big canoe they used when camping in the Uintahs. All in all, it was a good choice, and gave him a nice, safe, scenic ride to the courthouse.
So, this is where I’ll finally see him face to face, Richard thought, as they approached the courthouse doors. This is where I’ll finally see the guy who murdered me.
He wondered if it was at all possible he’d learn anything by looking into the man’s face, and he was already seriously doubting that was likely.
If there is anything that living in 21st century America has taught us all, Richard thought, it is that sometimes people just shoot each other, for no fucking reason.
The waiting hadn’t been easy. The hours since sunrise had crawled by, especially since Keith had done little except for write in his journal all morning and into the early afternoon. He recognized the behavior on Keith’s part. Obsessive reading and writing was the primary way that Keith processed stress, and seeing him dive back into his journal was a good sign.
As for Richard’s part, despite the boredom and anticipation, he felt absolutely amazing. As the time neared for Michelle and Pil to arrive and drive them to the courthouse, he had felt more alive and aware than ever. He was so eager to get to the hearing that he almost went early on his own. But he persevered, and finally Pil and Michelle had arrived.
But Michelle, Richard realized, looked much less ready. Less, even, than Keith, who had much more reason to be nervous about the hearing. Michelle had even briefly tried to talk the three of them out of going. But Keith was insistent. Richard could see that Keith’s drive to understand what had happened was just as strong as his own. He did not know exactly what was going on in his lover’s mind, but he had seldom seen him so clear and so certain about anything.
Eventually, they had all piled into the SUV. Richard had secured himself on the roof and endured a windy but exhilarating ride through downtown Salt Lake City.
In the lobby of the Matheson Courthouse, there were ghosts.
Not many, but he spotted two right off. He assumed that there were probably more, since he hadn’t yet learned how to spot the ones that could easily pass for the living. Perhaps it would come eventually. Like his gaydar, he would just know. But that wasn’t true yet.
Richard was proud of the way he was moving now, among the living. It was a skill he had picked up quickly. He could now dodge and weave to avoid painful impacts, and when he failed to slip through a quickly closing door, he just had to take a breath, clear his mind, and walk through. In some ways, the whole experience was giving him the same elation he would get when things first clicked in the learning of a new language. He loved that moment when suddenly the grammar rules all fit together, and the vocabulary reached a tipping point. The ability to suddenly speak and understand a new tongue was like very little else in life.
He was finally understanding the grammar of death, and the vocabulary of being a ghost. And that was almost enough to drown out the horror of what had happened to him.
The central atrium at the Matheson courthouse was impressive, by the standards of any city. The vaulted ceiling with wrap-around observation decks and turquoise panels gave a modern and yet classical feel to the building. The hearing room that was reserved for Howard Gunderson was down a corridor on the first floor, and Richard followed behind, after Pil got directions from a security guard. Another uniformed officer greeted them at the doorway and ushered them inside. Richard couldn’t tell if Keith was expected, or if the hearing truly was open to the public, with no questions asked.
Keith signaled to Michelle that he wanted to sit near the back. He clearly wanted to be there, but he was also content just to observe from afar.
Richard momentarily considered leaving Keith there and moving closer to the front, but decided he should stay close—at least for now. The seat next to Keith was taken, so he just scooted into the space behind that last row of seats. With some trial and error he eventually found a good spot to stand, directly behind Keith, and resting his hands on his lover’s shoulders. He unconsciously tried to knead his muscles, before realizing it was like trying to massage a statue.
For a high-profile murder case, Richard was surprised (and a little disappointed) to see that the room was actually quite small. It probably had a capacity of only fifty, and even at that, it was less than two-thirds full. There were five rows of chairs, separated from the bench and the tables for the accused and the prosecutors by a low red railing. A central aisle ran down the middle, and several members of the press squatted or knelt there with the tools of their trade. There were no cameras allowed, but Richard saw two sketch artists in aisle seats, and at least one reporter was murmuring notes into a hand-held recorder. A knot of uniformed police officers and paramedics stood at the back of the room, and Richard assumed they were the first responders from that night. But he saw nobody else he knew, other than Keith and the Kilanis.
The rest of these people must just be looky-loos, he thought. Murder tourists. Great.
He huffed in disgust, but he was also disappointed. Why wasn’t his death a bigger deal than this? It was a pretty gruesome murder, from what he had gleaned from the news reports. Why was the room not packed to rafters?
But then he remembered. There had been a lot of death in Salt Lake City these past few weeks. Especially the murders at the theater. Maybe his case just wasn’t sensational enough in this current environment.
Welcome to America, Richard thought. Where the bar is considerably higher for anybody to give a damn when you’re shot in the head.
They didn’t need to wait long. Howard Gunderson was ushered into the courtroom, through a side door. The press all jumped to their feet when the door opened, and they momentarily blocked Richard’s view of the boy and his entourage. He strained to see over the rows of seats in front of him, and made out that there was a pretty impressive gaggle of officers with the boy, as well as a lawyer that looked far too young and inexperienced to be handling a capital murder case.
Public defender? Richard wondered. Sheesh, can’t this kid afford somebody better to argue his case?
Try as he might, Richard couldn’t get a good look at Howard Gunderson himself before he sat down at the defendant’s table. The boy sat very still, his head slightly bowed. All Richard could see was the sandy brown hair of the young man, and note that he was of medium build.
Richard started looking for a pathway through the crowds to the front of the room, so he could get a better look—perhaps even look the boy directly in the eyes. But at that moment, the judge entered the room. Keith stood, along with everybody else as the judge entered, and when he sat back down, Richard could feel the shaking in his lover’s shoulders. He decided it would be best for him to stay right where he was, at least for now. He wanted desperately to study this boy who killed him, but he was also terribly concerned about Keith’s ability to handle this hearing.
As everyone sat down, he scanned the room. Besides the judge, he could now see the court recorder. At a table to the right sat another team. The slightly hunched man must be the district attorney, and the woman next to him, perhaps an assistant prosecutor.
Sitting behind Howard Gunderson was a woman who he assumed must be the boy’s mother. She was weeping, but silently, with a white handkerchief constantly moving to and from her eyes and nose. Sitting to her left, and immediately behind Gunderson, was another boy. A brother perhaps? He appeared to be about the same age, but Richard couldn’t get a good look at him, as he was leaning far forward; almost as if he was trying to whisper in Gunderson’s ear.
In the aisle directly in front of him, Richard recognized Morgan Jensen. She was a very popular reporter on KUTV, and he saw her on the newscast just a couple nights ago. This was the first time he had seen her in person, and he was a bit disgusted that even after death, he could still be star-struck by a local celebrity.
As the room quieted and the judge began reading the formal charges against Gunderson, Richard looked at the boy’s slumped shoulders.
Who could he be? And why would he have shot me?
He tried to search his mind, but he didn’t believe that the boy was anyone he had ever met. He certainly hadn’t been in a class at the University. Richard knew himself well enough to know that he would remember this handsome young man, had he been in one of his classes. After Justin, he’d been much more careful not to let himself become emotionally involved with any of them, but he still always noticed the handsome young men.
And from what little he could see, Howard Gunderson did indeed look like a handsome guy. Strong and athletic shoulders, but not muscle bound. He could even see a little blond peach fuzz on the boy’s cheek.
Probably has a little belly on him too, he thought, and a nice, firm ass under those orange prison pants.
He wished he could see him better. But the brother, or whoever he was, was leaning too close, and blocking much of Richard’s view.
As the judge read through more preliminaries, Richard finally caught one quick glimpse of Howard Gunderson’s face. The boy turned to look over his shoulder and whisper something to his mother, and Richard saw him clearly, although it was only for a couple seconds. And in that glance, his heart went out to the boy. He looked terrified and suddenly seemed very small and meek. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his upper lip was trembling. Richard felt a sad affection for the boy, and a desire to comfort him in his distress.
Sheesh, even a week dead, I still have a soft spot for damaged and needy young men. Even the one that killed me.
The judge asked the defendant to rise, so he could read the formal charges. To Richard’s surprise, the boy wasn’t the only one to stand. The brother, who was sitting directly behind him, rose as well. Richard was momentarily confused, because nobody else in the courtroom appeared to notice that both men had stood. He looked at the brother, or friend, or whoever he was, and realized that there was something about him that seemed familiar. Some shape of his shoulders perhaps, or the way his hands twitched at the end of his Levi jacket.
Yes, it is definitely something about the hands. They way move, or the way they grip Gunderson’s shoulders… And that jacket…
But before Richard could pursue that thought, the boy reached forward and put an arm around Howard Gunderson’s chest. Gunderson immediately brought his left hand up in front of his face and scratched at it with furious intensity. Richard noticed for the first time that the boy was handcuffed, and that his scratching was quickly becoming frantic, almost as if he was trying to rub out some ink stain on the back of his hand.
A groan escaped from Gunderson that was loud enough to turn the heads of everyone in the courtroom. Even the judge stopped talking, dumbfounded for a moment. The small chain on the boy’s handcuffs tinkled brightly in the silent room.
“Are you all right, Mr. Gunderson?” the judge asked.
The young lawyer stood, finally noticing that something was wrong with his client. He saw the boy shaking, and scratching at the back of his hand, and Gunderson let out a second, much louder moan, which sounded as if he was about ready to either vomit or collapse. The lawyer turned to the bench.
“Your honor, I’d like to request…”
But he didn’t finish the sentence.
Something is very wrong here, Richard thought.
What happened next happened just as quickly as it did in Liberty Park. But this time, Richard was staring directly at the ghost when it happened.
Howard tipped back his head and let out a scream so loud that it flattened the crowd back into their seats. In that scream Richard could make out only a single word:
A chill ran up Richard’s spine as he took an involuntary step back, slamming into the people who were standing behind him.
And instantly, the boy in the Levi jacket was gone.
The transformation of Howard Gunderson, from a panicked, terrified boy into a raging and angry maniac, was instantaneous. Before Richard could react, Howard let out a roar and used his cuffed hands to launch the table he was standing behind into the air. It flipped over in mid-flight, papers scattering everywhere, and a cup of coffee making a brown arch of liquid that hung in the air.
Before the coffee could come down on the court reporter, Howard Gunderson let out another terrifying howl, turned to face the back of the courtroom, and launched himself forward. One foot came down on the chair he had been sitting in, and the second found purchase on the red railing behind it. And before anyone could react, Gunderson too was airborne, and sailing with amazing strength and agility through the air, toward the back of the hearing room. The boy cleared the first two rows of seats, knocking aside his mother and other spectators, and then landing in a three-point stance in the central aisle. The spectators were screaming now, and heading toward the edges of the room, which left the central aisle clear, with Howard Gunderson leering and drooling there like a wild dog.
The bailiff and several of the other officers in the room were moving now, rushing at Gunderson from all sides. But it was too late. Gunderson had regained his feet, and he was moving, unimpeded, directly down the aisle and toward the back of the hearing room. And Richard could see, in the dark and twisted features of the boy, that his eyes were locked directly on one person.
Not only was the boy moving toward Keith with murder in his eyes, but now Richard saw that he also had a weapon. It looked to be a ball-point pen, the cap removed, and the sharp end extended out toward Keith with clearly murderous intent.
Richard tried to leap over the back row of seats, on a course to intercept the screaming boy, but instead he crashed into the lap of the woman who was sitting next to Keith. He tried to clamber over her, but lost his grip and fell back. With a sick certainty, he realized he would not have time to get between Howard Gunderson and Keith, and he knew that there was nothing he could do, even if he intercepted the boy. This wasn’t a ghost who would flail at Keith ineffectually. This was a living, possessed young man intent on murder, and just a matter of feet away from the man he loved. And no mere ghost could ever stand in his way.
Without thinking, Richard screamed,“Stay away from him, you bastard!”
At first, he thought the boy heard him. But that wasn’t it. Something else froze the boy’s movements, just three feet away from Keith, the pen poised in the air, and aimed at his partner’s face. Keith was frozen in terror.
That tableau held for a fraction of a second, the boy still. And then Howard roared. The look on the young man’s face was one you might see on a weightlifter, as he strained beyond any imaginable human limit.
But that fraction of a second was all that Pil needed.
Richard didn’t even see the big man push past Keith, he was moving so quickly. All he saw was one huge hand, looking bigger than it had any right to be, even for Pil. Open-palmed, Pil slammed his hand like a pile driver into Howard Gunderson’s chest, propelling him back like he had been struck by a wrecking ball. The boy crashed into the cops who were desperately scrambling up the aisle after him, and they all hit the floor hard, in the middle of the aisle.
And like an amoeba, the boy instantly split in two.
Richard barely saw it, and only registered what had happened when he reached the aisle, and fell to his knees in front of where Howard Gunderson was wrestling with the officers.
Where there had been only one body on the floor, there were now two. One was Howard Gunderson, but the other was… someone else. A boy in a Levi jacket that looked so very familiar. He sprawled face down next to Gunderson’s body, which the cops had now pinned to the floor. But the new boy turned over, and stared directly up into Richard Pratt’s face, less than two feet away…
The shock of it froze Richard in place.
Richard whispered so quietly that the boy wouldn’t have heard him, if the two hadn’t been face to face.
Richard realized that the ghost of his long dead lover could not see him while he was possessing Gunderson. But now that he was out of the boy, the shock and recognition were almost instantaneous. Justin let out a long and ear-piercing “Fuck NO!” as his lips curled back and his eyes burned into Richard. The look was so intense that Richard fell back on his haunches, unable to speak.
“I killed you, you son of a bitch! You’re not supposed to BE here!” Justin screamed.
The aisle of the courtroom was almost empty now. Two cops were hauling Gunderson to his feet, and he was moaning incoherently, while officers were clearing the courtroom.
Now it was just Richard and Justin—two ghosts, face to face, in the center aisle. Both were breathing so hard that their chests heaved. Richard knelt, trembling. Justin stumbled wildly to his feet, and screamed another “No!” But this one was lost in the room’s din, and was more pathetic than defiant. He bent over for a moment, his head in his hands, as if he could squeeze the vision of Richard Pratt completely out of his brain. He made a complete turn and then dropped his hands and lifted his head. From the look on his face, Richard thought the boy was going to roar again. But Justin just stood and stared at Richard from a half crouch, as if he was getting ready to spring at him at any moment. The look on his face contained more hatred and venom than any Richard had ever seen. More, even, than the day that Justin had walked out of his house in fury.
Richard tried again.
And he reached out a hand, as if to touch the boy.
There was a moment where their eyes held, and for a fraction of a second, Richard thought that the hatred in Justin would crack and fall from his face like a mask. That perhaps there was a tenderness or a softness beneath all that rage that wanted to find its way out. Richard thought in that moment that the boy would actually reach out a hand toward him.
But the hate was back almost instantly, and Justin growled with such frustration and rage that no words came of it.
Then he was off.
Justin literally climbed up Howard Gunderson’s body, which was being dragged away. He scaled the cops as if they were just footholds for him to use, and with one foot on the top of a bald cop’s head, he launched himself toward the wall in a leap that seemed superhuman. Richard expected him to crash into the wall, but instead, he tucked at the last moment, sailed through the wall, and disappeared into whatever was on the other side.
Richard turned toward the rear door. He realized only seconds had passed, although it had seemed like so much longer. Pil had shepherded both Michelle and Keith through the crowd, and Richard could only see the top of his shaggy head now, as they turned the corner outside the doors and disappeared into the hallway.
The last person to leave the courtroom was Howard Gunderson. He was being half dragged, half carried toward the door at the front of the hearing room. There was blood on his face, and he still seemed unable to catch his breath after Pil’s open handed body-blow.
And then the hearing room was suddenly empty.
Richard looked at the door where Howard had been dragged.
He looked at the double doors into the hallway where Pil had rushed off with Keith and Michelle.
And then he looked at the wall where Justin had disappeared.
He couldn’t even say he made a conscious decision. It was all just instinct. He had three directions he could go—after Keith, after Howard Gunderson, or after Justin. And he knew instantly what he had to do. He ran toward the wall. He leaped onto the railing, planted one foot firmly, and launched himself toward the exact spot on the wall where Justin had disappeared. At the last moment, he closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind.
He slipped through the wall like water through a sieve. And the hearing room was empty.
Where Justin had gone was a service corridor which led directly east, toward the front of the building. Richard ran down the corridor but did not stop when he reached what he assumed from the high windows was an outside wall. He rushed straight through the wall and was suddenly in brilliant sunshine. But he was also four feet off the ground, and when gravity slammed him into the lawn, his knees failed and he rolled over twice before getting his bearings.
When he regained his feet, it didn’t take him long to see Justin. The boy was darting across the six lanes of traffic on State Street, heading East toward the park in front of the City and County Building. Richard held his breath as Justin weaved through the traffic, certain the boy was going to get himself reset. But he made it safely through to the other side and disappeared into the park. Richard sprinted to State Street, but the light had changed in both directions, and he didn’t dare make a dash for it across the steadily streaming traffic. He wondered if he could just close his eyes and let the cars pass through him, the way he could now pass through doors. But this wasn’t the time for grand experiments. He couldn’t afford a reset when he was so close.
It was Justin Kimball! My god… Justin…
The traffic broke, and he rushed through to the other side, certain that he had lost Justin for good. In the thirty seconds it had taken Richard to get through the traffic, the boy could have run almost anywhere.
But he hadn’t.
Unlike Mattie, Justin hadn’t kept running. Richard found him kneeling next to a fountain in the lush green park. He had stopped in the middle of the grass, and collapsed with his head in his hands, trembling and murmuring to himself.
Slowly, Richard crossed the grassy expanse, until he was less than fifty feet from the boy. He stopped and contemplated what he should do. He knew that if he approached Justin he would just flee, and it was completely possible that Richard would lose him and never see him again.
And despite it all, Richard did want to see Justin. He wanted to see him, to talk to him, to understand what had happened to him. Even though they could never touch, at least this ghost could see him, could hear him, and could even speak. It was more than any ghost he had yet encountered.
And it is Justin. Who I once loved. Who I betrayed…
He wanted to collapse in front of the boy and tell him how sorry he was for everything that had happened. He wanted to beg his forgiveness. He wanted to try and make it right, if that could ever be possible.
Richard reached a hand out and started across the grassy expanse between them.
I’ll just touch his face. He won’t feel it. It will be like smoke, but he’ll see. He’ll know I mean him no harm. He’ll know that I’m so sorry. For everything…
From nowhere, a hand shot out and grabbed Richard’s wrist.
At first Richard thought it was Justin. But he was still too far away. But it was a hand. It was an actual touch, and Richard had become so sure he would never feel that again, that he was frozen in awe, staring at those straining fingers. Slowly, he turned to see the face to his left. The one behind the hand that held his wrist.
It was the boy that had called to him on South Temple two days ago! The one with the straw hat and the bare feet, who had caused him to stop in the intersection. The one he was so sure had seen him in that moment before the reset.
But it was not the boy himself that shocked Richard, as much as the look on his face. He was staring, not at Richard’s face, but at his own hand, where it was gripping Richard’s wrist. Richard knew instantly that the boy was as shocked to be touching another ghost as he was.
“You… You have the touch…” the boy said in awe.
Richard was amazed that he could hear and see and even be touched by this ghost—this young boy who didn’t even stand as tall as his own shoulder. He stared at his wrist, still held firmly in the boy’s vise-like grip. It seemed far too strong for a boy his size, but it wasn’t painful. Just insistent and firm.
Richard didn’t struggle, but he reached his other hand up to touch the boy’s hand, just to prove it was real. The hand was solid and soft, like the touch of real human flesh.
The boy suddenly dropped Richard’s wrist, as if it was too hot to hold, and stepped back, his mouth trying to form words. Richard looked at him. He didn’t know what to make of this young boy in his dirty clothes and hat.
As if he sensed them behind him, Justin got to his feet. He turned, and saw them both there, standing, facing each other, only twenty feet away.
The boy ghost leaned forward and whispered, too quiet for anyone but Richard to hear. “Justin has the first two gifts. He can see us, and he can hear us. But he can’t yet touch. And we can’t touch him.”
Richard’s first impression was that the words didn’t match the voice. He sounded like a boy barely past puberty. But he talked like someone much older. He actually had diction as clear as the professors he worked with in the Linguistics department.
Justin sneered at the two ghosts and then looked directly at Richard. “God will… smite you!” he yelled across the grass.
And then he fled.
Richard yelled, “Justin, stop!” and tried to start after him. But the young boy had his wrist firmly again. Richard didn’t remember him taking it, but the grip was incredibly strong, and he couldn’t pull away.
Quietly, the boy said, “No, Richard. Don’t go. Don’t follow him.”
“I have to follow him! I know him! That’s Justin! I’m the…” Richard choked. “I’m the reason he’s dead!”
“You can’t help him,” the boy said, his voice suddenly so calm that it gave Richard chills. “He’s lost to you, and always will be. He’s one of the angels, and there is no coming back from that. The Justin you knew is long gone.”
In anger, Richard tried again to pull away from the boy, but couldn’t. He couldn’t even rock the boy off his feet. “Who…” he started, but his voice trailed off.
The boy dropped his wrist and stepped back. That step took him out from under the shade of the tree, and into brilliant sunlight.
“My name is Billy Travers. And I’ll answer all your questions, Richard Pratt. But you need to come with me. I don’t know how much time we have.”
The boy stared at him for a moment, and then without another word, he turned and walked away to the south.
Richard wanted to yell after him. He wanted to ask the thousands of questions that were bombarding his mind faster than he could put any of them into words.
He looked north, after Justin, and then south after this boy named Billy. And somewhere in his mind, Keith tugged at him as well, demanding his return. Demanding he fulfill his promise.
Richard was so conflicted he could barely stop himself from collapsing in the grass and refusing to go anywhere. But the boy was walking swiftly now across the park, getting further from him every moment. In just seconds, he would be gone. There was so much this boy knew. So much he could tell him.
How does he know my name? he wondered.
Richard turned and followed Billy Travers out of the park.
— END OF BOOK ONE —
Thank you for reading The Last Handful of Clover! I’ve been thrilled and honored to offer the trilogy here on QSaltLake.com. If you’ve stuck with the story this far, I hope you’ll drop me a note and let me know! I love hearing from readers, and I can be easily reached through my website, or simply by email.
The story will continue with the Book Two: Gifts Both Light and Dark, beginning on Friday. The final volume, The Stone in the Stream, will follow, starting in early 2022. However! If you’re impatient, I’d like to invite you again to check out my Patreon page. I’m releasing the story there at a faster rate, and we’re just finishing up the second volume, as of late June, 2022. We’d love to have you join us!
Once again, thank you for reading!
—Wess Mongo Jolley
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.