The Last Handful of Clover

Prologue / Chapter 2.1: The Doggie in the Window

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

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Author’s Note:

Hello, Gentle Readers!

Welcome to Book Two of the Last Handful of Clover. This volume is entitled Gifts Both Light and Dark. I’m thrilled to have you on this journey with me. If you’re just joining us, you’ll want to read the first volume of the trilogy, The Hereafter, before continuing (a link to the Table of Contents is above). And stay tuned after each chapter for links to my website, and other ways to get in touch.

Thanks for reading, and hold on tight! This ride is about to get bumpy!

—Wess Mongo Jolley

Content Advisory:

Although this book is not particularly explicit, there are a few scenes with frank depictions of sexuality. There is also some graphic violence and depictions of sexual assault. Lastly, the book discusses grief and mourning after the loss of a loved one, and because of this, a few scenes may be difficult for some readers.

Prologue — Bradley Seward

The Cleansing: June 16, 8:55 pm
On the Roof of the Wells Fargo Building, Downtown Salt Lake City

At least the screaming has stopped. It’s a relief, after the past few hours of her incessant wailing, to have this silence surround me like a warm blanket.

The sun has touched the horizon, and for the first time since… well, since that night in the theater, I can almost feel a sense of peace. Even the devastated city below us seems at rest. A last breath before God brings down the curtain? I suppose the dead have no more to say, and the dying just want to do it alone now, and quietly.

Even the possessed scientist in the lab coat at my side is silent. I don’t glance at him, but I know he’s there—his face brutally mangled, and still dripping blood onto his dirty white jacket.

Like me, he also is not what he appears to be. I’ve had a glimpse of what he really is. And that glance was enough.

I remember a word. Gargoyles. That is what we are, staring out over the city, our eyes focused on the setting sun, which has now touched the far horizon. It glimmers and dances in the toxic, smoky air like an angry charcoal briquette. Perhaps, like all of us, the sun is desperate to be done with this wretched, evil day.

In the silence, I can hear my own living heartbeat. Feel my own very human lungs, drawing air. I can sense the blood pulsating in this body I have taken. This body with curves and mounds and softness so unlike what I remember from when I was alive. I have touched women, and loved them, but it’s still a revelation—to have flesh in places my old body never had, and flesh… missing from places where it should be.

But it is a comfortable body. If I had time, it’s a body I could learn to love.

Too bad it too will be rotting before morning.

I glance at the two black suitcases at our feet. It will be only moments now. God said to wait until the sun disappeared behind the horizon. So we will wait. As always, we will obey God in all things.

What I have in these last few moments are my memories. I wish I could remember more from before I died, but that’s all still hazy and indistinct. All I remember well are these past eight days.

No, that isn’t completely true.

When I awoke in the theater I didn’t know who I was, or where I was, but I remembered that instant before my death—the knife plunging into the soft flesh under my chin, and the butt of my hand hammering it through the top of my mouth and into my brain. And I remembered agony, the sudden blackness, and the moment of numbness and terror after my brain was pierced. I remember lying face down on the sticky theater floor, where out of the corner of my eye, I watched my red and quivering hand fluttering in front of my face.

And I remember thinking, If I’m dead, how is it that I am still screaming?

But all that is from my life before. Scattered images from a hazy past, like individual movie frames, scratched and stuttering through a projector. My new life began when I woke up in that dark theater and knew at once that I was dead.

I remember my new ghost body, reaching up in the dark, until I felt my shattered face. I probed under my chin and slid a finger inside the ragged hole I found there—instantly surprised that there was no knife embedded to the hilt. I thrust my other hand into my mouth, finding my split tongue and shattered palate.

And then I felt the amazing sensation of it all becoming whole under my touch. The closing wound under my chin expelled my fingers with a wet, flatulent sound. I clenched my fist against the agony, and as I did so, I felt the knife as it reformed in my hand, like an insistent enemy, prying apart my fingers.

Instinctively, I threw it from me like a snake that was prepared to strike. Only to find it back in my hand again a moment later. Three times in my agony I tried to cast it away, unsuccessfully, before rolling over on my hands and knees, pressing the point of the knife into the floor below me.

Slowly, my groans ceased and became a ragged breathing. In the silence between breaths, I could now see subtle details in the unrelenting blackness around me. And I felt textures under my hands—a hard texture, like rough pavement or cold concrete.

I flailed at my own mind, trying to uncover some clue to who I had been, where I was, and why I felt such heart-wrenching despair coursing through every cell of my body. I screamed again, clawing at the blackness. I found my feet and stumbled through the dark theater, smashing hard into a row of theater seats, collapsing and righting myself on the unexpected steps. All at once I was sure that I was going to vomit, and I vaulted toward a sliver of light from a ramp that led down. I squeezed between two curtains that were as unmovable as marble columns and collapsed into the hallway beyond.

And then I was in the theater lobby, where I fell to my knees and tried to retch out all the vileness that had invaded my body. But try as I might, my shuddering shoulders and heaving stomach could not bring up anything but moist, fetid air.

As the shudders passed, I fell back against the snack bar, exhausted. And realized the bloody knife was still in my fist. Calmer now, I dropped it, and watched it reappear in my hand. The handle of the knife felt as smooth as glass, and for the first time I realized my hands were pristine and clean, without a sign of blood. But my uniform looked as if I had been working in a slaughterhouse.

Over and over, I dropped the knife. And over and over it reappeared in my hand. Finally, I slid the knife into the pocket of my jacket, and was relieved that it seemed content to stay there.

The lobby was empty. There wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere. The wine red carpet was trampled and dirty, and the popcorn in the glass bin behind my head smelled rancid and stale. There were yellow strips of crime scene tape all around the lobby, laying like twisted snakes across the soiled carpet.

For a moment I thought perhaps the world had ended, and that I was the only man on earth. Perhaps everything I remembered was some kind of dream or hallucination. Perhaps there had been a plague that left the rest of the world dead, and I was the only survivor. Maybe I would leave the theater to find the bodies piled up in rotting heaps.

But that didn’t explain the knife. Or the bloody uniform I wore.

I was making a noise that sounded like a dying animal and tried to make myself stop. And just before my mind gave out completely, I realized I was not alone. There was a presence there in the lobby with me. I looked around, desperately trying to see who it was. But there was nobody there. And yet, there was! I could sense it! There was someone there with me. Someone invisible. Someone silent.

Someone who… someone who loved me.

Yes, I thought. It’s true. There is someone here who loves me…

The feeling of relief and gratitude flowed through me, stronger than even the terror that still clutched at my chest. I reached my hands out, hoping that this stranger would come to me. Would hold me. Would tell me that I would not be alone in this nightmare forever.

And that was when I heard her. Softly, but drawing nearer. It was a child’s voice, singing an old song. The words stirred memories of two little girls, sitting at my feet. Little girls from a life so long gone now, it might as well have never existed.

How much is that doggie in the window?
The one with the waggly tail…
How much is that doggie in the window?
I do hope that doggie’s for sale…

With a deep breath, I wrench my wandering mind free of these memories, and I am back on the rooftop, staring into the setting sun. I know it has only been moments, but how easy, how seductive it is, to be lost in memories. I don’t know how much time I have left, but indulging in the past like this is a sure way to lose my mind. And we still have much work to do. Much work to do for God.

Still humming the tune to myself, and staring into the last of the sun as it slips below the horizon, I reach for the first of the two black cases at my feet.

And then I hear a voice behind me…

June 8, 5:30 pm

I’m already beginning to dislike this little prick, Richard thought.

Billy Travers was heading south on State Street, and the older ghost was struggling to keep up.  The boy was moving fast through the streets of Salt Lake City—too fast for conversation, and to Richard’s annoyance, the kid didn’t even look back to see if he was following. He obviously took it for granted that Richard was there.

The arrogance of that assumption irked him.

And where the hell were they going? They were heading south, and that was directly away from Keith. Richard could feel that insistent tug now at the back of his head, and he hated the feeling.

I’ve literally turned my back on Keith to follow this kid, he thought. And it literally hurts.

Finally, Richard had had enough. He put on a burst of speed and caught the boy just as he was getting ready to cross 17th South. He was relieved to find that the ability to touch the ghost boy had remained, as he grabbed his arm and twisted him around. Billy was the first thing Richard had touched since all this began, which actually moved when he pushed.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Richard said, panting a little. He noticed the boy didn’t seem winded at all, and he also didn’t look surprised that Richard had stopped him. The look on his face told Richard that he had been waiting for him to do it. The rush hour traffic was zooming past on State Street, but fortunately, there was almost no one on the sidewalk.

“I think I’ve followed you far enough,” Richard said. “If I’m going to come with you, I think I deserve some explanations! Who the hell are you, and what…” Richard struggled to find the words. “What the fuck do you want with me?”

The boy was creepily calm as he looked at Richard, and then at the hand holding his arm. Richard self-consciously dropped it.

“I promise to explain it all, Richard. But we have to hurry.” The boy had a faraway look in his eyes as he gazed into the southwest.

“Hurry where? Where are we going? And how the hell do you know my name?”

The boy didn’t seem to hear. He was lost in his own thoughts for a moment. “She’s been there all morning. And if she still is, I think what is going to happen could be… important.”

Richard couldn’t keep the impatience out of his voice. “I don’t understand. Who are you talking about? And where?”

The boy looked at him and gave a half smile.

“We’re going to Valley Fair Mall. To the theaters there.”

It took a second for that to register on Richard’s memory. “The Megaplex? The place where that guy stabbed all those people a few days ago?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Richard, I said I’d explain everything to you, and I will. But not now. Now we have to hurry. Come on.”

The light had changed, and steady streams of cars were heading both directions on State Street. “The traffic is getting too thick. We need to get off the streets,” the boy said. “I know you’ve discovered you can run quickly, but you’ve also discovered that when you do, bad things can happen.”

Richard squinted at him. “South Temple.”

“Yes. South Temple. It was a FedEx truck, but you probably didn’t see that.”

“No, I didn’t. But I felt it.” Richard paused for a beat, remembering the moment of that impact, and all that followed. “I saw you. You yelled to me. You were there.”

“Yes. I started following you when I saw you at the Park. After what happened in the playground.”

Richard wanted to ask him exactly what had happened in that playground, but Billy was already walking away from him. There was a panel van in front of them from RC Wiley Furniture. The back bumper had a low step, and on either side of the big roll-up door was a handle to help you climb inside. Billy stepped up onto the back step of the van and grabbed the handle on the left. He looked back at Richard, as if he would know what he was to do.

Richard did. He climbed onto the bumper at the right.

“This is safer than walking. Or running.” Billy said.

“I prefer a roof rack,” Richard said, tightening his grip on the handhold. He was about to ask again about the playground, but the light changed, and the truck was heading west down 17th South, and all he could do was concentrate on hanging on.

The route to Valley Fair Mall was not a direct shot from downtown. Over the next hour Billy led Richard on a bewildering array of routes, sometimes on foot, and often with the help of a convenient delivery truck or van. Finally, Richard was able to shout over the sound of traffic, “What happened at the playground? Who was that little girl?” But Billy’s reply was cryptic.

“A very wise and kind old woman once told me I needed to have patience, and I waited more than a hundred years to find out what she meant. You can wait a little longer for your answers, Richard Pratt.”

The little shit was really starting to annoy him. But he decided he’d wait to ask any more questions until they got to where they were going. And to be honest, Richard was getting a bit of a childish thrill from hopping on and off bumpers as they sped across town. It was something he’d never been able to get away with, either as a kid or as an adult.

I guess being a ghost is like being a kid again in some ways. Except you never again need anyone’s permission for anything.

Another realization was also dawning on Richard, and the more he thought about it, the more it made his mind spin.

I am not alone.

The knowledge that there was somebody sharing this world with him, and it was somebody with real flesh he could touch, and a real mind he could talk to, was finally sinking in. He had just started to accept that his existence as a ghost would always be solitary. But if there was one ghost like Billy in this world, there had to be more. And if that was true, then maybe he didn’t have to be alone. He could find companionship, conversation, tenderness, perhaps even passion.

But what if this Billy is the only one? The only one who can see me. The only one who can… touch me…

Richard looked at the boy. He looked young, but his mind was clearly much older than his body. He talked like of one of the professors in the philosophy department—quiet and thoughtful. Richard had no trouble imagining the boy with a pipe and slippers, holding court next to a roaring fire.

Still, it was possible…

The thought crossed his mind: No longer do I need to ask anyone’s permission. Or forgiveness.

Immediately disgusted with himself, he pushed the thought from his mind. He liked younger men, but not that young! He’d never been attracted to someone Billy’s age, and he wasn’t about to start now. But the thought kept coming back to his mind…

What if he is the only one?

After a better part of an hour zigzagging their way through the city, while avoiding the freeways and the busiest roads, they eventually found themselves in the parking lot of Valley Fair Mall. They both leaped off the bumper of an Econoline van with the J.C. Penney logo on the side, as it pulled into the mall parking lot. Billy immediately made a beeline for the theater entrance.

“I figure it’s about 7:00,” Billy said. “The mall won’t close for an hour or two, so it will be busy. But my guess is the Megaplex is still roped off. We should be able to relax there and wait.” He turned to Richard. “Have you been here before?”

Richard laughed. “More times than I can count. I’ve been to dozens of movies here. And Keith and I…” He took a breath. “We were regulars at the Olive Garden.”

“Hm. Free breadsticks,” Billy said flatly, not even glancing at Richard.

“Yes. Exactly.” Richard said, shooting the boy a quizzical look. When was the last time this ghost actually ate a breadstick? Or anything?

There was still a closed section of the parking lot, and it was mostly empty. The one exception was a lone police car, parked on the curb outside the theater entrance. The yellow tape had mostly fallen from the police sawhorses, but the mall patrons had still respected that this was unholy ground, and had all parked as far away as they could.

“So. This is where it happened,” Richard said, remembering the grisly details from the news. “It’s hard to believe. It seems so quiet now.”

Billy led them up to the door of the Megaplex. “Yes, ‘this is the place,’ to quote Brother Brigham. It’s been three days. In fact, it was the very night you came back,” Billy said.

Richard wanted to ask how Billy would know when he came back, but then he realized what the boy had said. “My god. You’re right. It’s only been three days. It seems like so much longer.”

“You’ve been back longer than you were away,” Billy said. They were at the doors now. Billy turned to him. “I noticed that you’ve learned how to pass through walls and doors. How do you do it?”

Richard shrugged. “I don’t know, exactly. The first time was the morning after I came back, and it was kind of an accident. But now, I find if I just clear my mind and try to relax, it just happens.”

Billy’s eyes narrowed, and he gave a sigh before responding. “That’s not one of the gifts. Most of us can do that within a week or so, once our minds settle enough from the return. But it took me a few months. I had a… rather difficult transition. You did it on your first day?”

“Yeah, the next morning, after I came back. That’s unusual?”

“You have no idea,” Billy said. He put his hand through the glass door and left it there. It looked like his arm had passed into a pool of supernaturally still water. “But you’re right, it just takes calmness and concentration. Soon it will be natural and automatic, and you won’t even realize you’re doing it. At that point you’ll walk through walls and even stop being jostled by the living. They’ll walk right through you on the street. Even the rain will pass right through you, rather than tearing you to pieces.”

Billy looked at Richard like he was studying a strange insect. “In fact, I think you already have that talent. I suspect that if you’d seen that truck coming, you could have made it pass right through you without being reset.”

“I wish I had. I’ve never felt anything like that.”

“Just don’t let something like that surprise you again. Even the oldest ghosts can get reset, if they’re caught unawares. Or in an intense emotional state.”

Richard just absorbed all this without asking more questions. He was learning that if he just let this boy talk, he’d probably learn more than he would through any interrogation.

They went into the theaters, sliding through the glass like a pair of ducks diving under the waves. And Richard found himself in the giant courtyard which was emblematic of the Megaplex. This was one of the city’s biggest theater complexes, and the central courtyard was elaborate. It reminded him of some of the food courts he and Keith had discovered in the bigger Las Vegas casinos. Even though it was deserted, they could both see the crowds milling behind the “Megaplex” steel archway that divided this area from the rest of the mall. A lone cop was there, behind more yellow tape, guarding the entryway. The mall patrons kept glancing past the man as they strolled by, trying to get a view of the area where so much death and destruction had occurred just three days ago.

Richard looked at the floor of the courtyard, and he saw that there were still some streaks of blood that hadn’t been completely cleaned, although it was clear that process had started. The cleaning equipment was stacked against a far wall. He assumed they would open the theater complex later in the week, although he wondered if they would open the specific theater where the massacre occurred, ever again.

Billy and Richard sat down at a table in the courtyard, with a view of the theater lobby, right next to a big, ornate carousel. The lobby itself was dimly lit, mostly from the light pouring out of the candy cases and the popcorn dispenser, and from where they sat, Richard could see more dark stains in the dim light.

They sat in silence for close to twenty minutes, and Richard watched Billy continually glance up at the crowds milling beyond the archway, past the crime scene tape. Richard was determined not to break the silence, and so he just looked around the courtyard and waited.

He remembered this mall, all the way back to coming here as a child with his mom. He remembered riding that carousel. And he remembered going to movies in this theater with Keith, more times than he could count. Everywhere he looked held a memory, and they were competing in his mind for attention. He was grateful when the boy finally spoke.

“I suspect we have at least an hour or two more to wait.” Billy leaned his elbows on the table. “Richard, I’ve promised to explain everything to you, and I will. But I need to know a few things, so I know where to begin.” Richard nodded, but didn’t respond. “First, tell me what you think happened in that hearing room.”

Richard hadn’t expected to be the one answering questions, and he had a hard time getting started.

“I… Well, I guess I’m not sure what happened. I was there with Keith…”

“Who is Keith?” Billy asked.

Richard looked at him, deciding if he wanted to come out to this boy. He couldn’t be more than fifteen. Well, no need to ask permission if you’re a ghost, he thought, and took a deep breath. “Keith is… or was… my boyfriend. Husband, actually.”

There must have been a look of defensiveness in Richard’s eyes, as he looked at Billy, waiting for a reaction. When Billy realized what he was doing, he just smiled. “I know about homosexuals, Richard. Go on.”

“Okay…” Richard said, not sure if he should be insulted or not at the boy’s dismissive tone. “Well, the hearing was for a guy named Howard Gunderson. I guess he’s the one who shot me. Except he wasn’t. What I saw in that courtroom…” He shuddered. “I have to assume that Howard Gunderson was being controlled by Justin the day he shot me. Controlled by a ghost like us. He took control of him again in the courtroom, and I watched him try to attack Keith. I think he wanted to kill him, the same way he killed me.”

“And you know the ghost.” Billy stated. It wasn’t a question.

Richard sighed. “Yes. His name was… His name is Justin Kimball. He was my lover too. More than twenty years ago.”

“Did you kill him?”

“What? No! I didn’t kill him!” Richard had to suppress a desire to slap the boy. But he took a breath and continued. “But he died. Suicide, I think. Or maybe it was just an accident. Nobody was ever sure.”

“He must have hated you very much to have killed you. And even more to want to kill the man you love now.”

“Well, things didn’t end well for us.” Richard knew that was the biggest understatement he had ever made. Alive or dead.

“How so?”

Richard felt his back stiffen, and he looked away from Billy’s probing eyes. “I really don’t want to go into it. Let’s just say I was an asshole, and I treated him really badly. Badly enough that he either killed himself by driving off an embankment, or he was so upset at the time that he did it by accident. Either way, it was my fault.”

Billy got a distant look in his eyes, as he contemplated what Richard had told him. Long minutes passed in silence, and when the boy finally spoke, Richard could tell he was speaking to himself now, hardly aware that Richard was even there. “Interesting. So Justin was acting on his own then. His need for revenge must have been overpowering…” Billy’s voice got quiet as he continued. “And that also means that he has possessed the same host a second time. At least a second time. Maybe more, for all we know.”

“Is that bad?” Richard asked

“I’m not sure,” Billy replied. “Let’s just say it is… interesting.”

Richard stared at the boy. His evasiveness was becoming really frustrating. He’d questioned Richard without really telling him anything about what was going on. These vague and mystical comments weren’t explaining anything. Finally, his frustration got the better of him. He jumped to his feet and started pacing back and forth in front of the table, pointing an accusing finger at the boy.

“This is bullshit! You promised me you were going to tell me what was going on, and so far all I’ve gotten is an interrogation, and some vague shit that doesn’t mean anything. Are you going to tell me what is going on, or not? It sounds like you need me for something, but I don’t fucking need you. If you’re not going to tell me what’s happening, I’m leaving. I shouldn’t be here, anyway. I should be with Keith!”

Richard knew, even as he was saying it, that it was an empty threat. He wasn’t going anywhere. At least not yet. He needed to know what was going on, and he also needed to be with this boy, who was the only living, breathing, tangible person he had interacted with since this all started. And again, he felt that even by thinking that, he was once again betraying Keith.

“I mean it, Billy whatever-your-name-is. I promised that I’d stay with Keith, and I shouldn’t even fucking be here. I should be with him. He’s all alone, and it’s my fault, so if you can’t give me a good reason to stay, I’m gone.”

“What do you want me to tell you,” Billy asked, his voice calm and steady.

“I need to know what in the hell is going on.”

“You know nothing, Richard Pratt,” Billy said with a sly smile.

Richard stopped pacing and stared at Billy, rage in his eyes. “Did you just quote fucking Game of Thrones at me?”

 Billy laughed. “I did. It’s a great show. I watched it with a family in Sandy who was obsessed with it, and caught every episode, each day it came out.” His voice grew serious. “But it’s true, Richard. You know nothing. Unfortunately, I don’t understand much more than you do. But I’m asking you to calm down and give me tonight. And after tonight, if you still want to leave and go back to Keith, I won’t stand in your way.”

Richard sank back down in the chair in front of Billy, his head in his hands.

“Don’t worry,” Billy said. “I only have one more question. But it’s an important one.” Billy put a hand on Richard’s arm, and he looked up. “Since you have died, has God spoken to you?”

“What? God? No! I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.”

“That’s good. Not that you’re an atheist, although maybe that will come in handy. But it’s good that God hasn’t spoken to you yet. I guarantee you, he will. He may know about you already, and if he doesn’t, he will soon. At the very least, Justin will probably tell him.” Billy squeezed Richard’s arm. “When he speaks to you, just remember this: He… this presence… is not really God. He lies. He’ll tell you he’s God. He’s not. He lies, and he’s dangerous.”

“If he’s not God, then who is he?” Richard asked, intrigued in spite of himself.

“I wish I knew,” Billy replied, releasing Richard’s arm and leaning back in his seat. “The ghosts who follow him call themselves ‘angels,’ and they truly believe he’s God. Richard, unlike you, I’m not an atheist. I believe in God, and for years I believed that the voice I was hearing was truly his voice. But now, I don’t believe he is here. God is not in the Hereafter. This is a cursed place, and God is nowhere to be found within it. At first, I believed the darkness that I heard in that voice was only proof that God had forsaken us. But now, I don’t call him God anymore. To me, he is just ‘the Wanderer.’”

Richard wanted to ask more. Every statement that Billy made answered one question, but raised a dozen others. He started to ask, “What do you mean by ‘the Hereafter’…”

But Billy stopped him. He put his finger to his lips to shush Richard, and whispered, “She’s coming earlier than I expected. She’ll be here in less than a minute.”

“Who’s coming?”

Billy was once again staring at the milling crowds beyond the crime scene tape. His eyes were unfocused and dream-like. “The one who killed the kids in this theater.”

“Wait, I thought it was some soldier who went nuts…” Richard said, but Billy raised a hand to silence him.

That was when Richard heard the singing.

How much is that doggie in the window?
The one with the waggly tail…
How much is that doggie in the window?
I do hope that doggie’s for sale…

Richard and Billy both sat in silence now, staring down the corridor toward the archway, and the people beyond. The crowd had thinned, and now only an occasional passerby could be seen. Each one glanced nervously into the food court, glanced at the cop standing there, and then kept walking.

All but one.

It was a little girl. She was wearing an old style pioneer dress, and she was skipping as if she was playing in the sunlight, happy to be wearing her new Sunday best. She stopped on the other side of the yellow tape and stared in at them.  Richard could swear she was staring directly at them.

“It’s her,” he whispered. “The little girl from the park.”

“Her name is Mattie,” Billy replied, his voice carrying a weight of sadness that hung in the air between them.

The little girl didn’t look at them, but just skipped right through the yellow tape, suddenly inside the courtyard. She started the nursery rhyme over again, and then skipped past the table where they sat, not even looking at them. It was as if she couldn’t see them at all, or rather, like she was intentionally ignoring them.

“Does she know we’re here?” Richard asked, still whispering.

“She knows,” Billy said, quietly.

 The little girl passed their table, singing her song, and skipped into the theater. There was no door into the lobby, just an archway beyond which was the ticket booth, and row upon row of concession counters.

Without a word, Billy stood and followed the little girl. And because he didn’t know what else to do, Richard followed as well, two paces behind the boy.

Now that they were in the dimly lit lobby, Richard could see that there was blood splattered and pooled across the floor, and here and there, a bloody handprint on the wall and the glass concession cases. Plastic tents with numbers on them still marked where evidence had been found. It was clear that the cleanup process that had begun in the courtyard had not extended into the lobby, and seeing the carnage made Richard’s stomach lurch.

Billy paused just inside the archway, as if he wanted them to linger in the shadows. The little girl was in the middle of that bloody lobby now, and standing very still, her back to the pair. Richard watched as her spine rippled, like she was sensing their presence behind her. She cocked her head first to one side, and then the other, and her fingers extended long toward the floor. Slowly, she turned and her gaze fell upon them like daggers. Richard felt the evil and hatred in them so intently that he faded back a step.

The little girl slowly walked up to them, swinging her arms and her hips as if she was walking through a field of daisies, and stopped just two feet in front of Billy. She didn’t so much as glance at Richard, although he was sure that she could see him. After all, she had seen him earlier, in Liberty Park.

“Hello, Princess,” Billy said.

The little girl didn’t answer, but Richard was appalled at the hate he could see in her eyes, as she stared at the boy. It was clear that she was used to seeing him, and that she was angry that he was here. He looked again at Billy and saw the tears in his eyes. The boy was looking at this little monster with genuine affection, as if he wanted nothing more than to reach out to her, to hold her, and to drain all of her fury into the earth on which they stood.

The two stared, but neither moved. Finally, Richard cleared his throat to break the tension.

Then, like a wave had receded from the shore, the little girl suddenly became coy and sweet, as if the murderous rage she had been projecting had never been. She swayed back and forth, and swished her dress around her ankles like she was actually shy, or even a little flirtatious.

“Who is your friend, Billy?” she said, quickly turning her eyes on Richard.

“Mattie, this is Richard,” Billy said with no emotion in his voice. “Richard, this is Mattie Sowersby.”

“Enchanté,” the little girl said, in practiced French. “My mommy taught me that word. It means ‘pleased to meet you,’ Mr. Richard.”

“Pleased to meet you too, Mattie,” Richard said, his throat so dry he could barely croak out the words.

“Do you love God, Mr. Richard?” the little girl asked.

“I…” Richard started. But the little girl didn’t let him finish.

“I don’t think you do. In fact, I think you’re a bad boy. A really, really bad boy. Just like Billy.”

When neither of them answered, she turned back to the boy. “Aren’t you tired of following me, Billy Travers? You’re stupid and boring, and you make me tired.” Billy still didn’t respond. “Or did you just come back because you enjoyed the show?” The smile on her face revealed teeth that Richard couldn’t help but imagine were filed to deadly points.

“They were innocents, Mattie,” Billy said, speaking slowly, gently, and carefully to the little girl. “Do you remember the girl? The one who looked like Francis? She was beautiful. She deserved to live.”

The little girl laughed. “Posh, posh b’gosh, you silly boy!” she said, twirling around so the hem of her dress flared out around her bony knees. “Do you really think any of them deserve to live? Why can’t you believe what God told you? Why are you such a silly willy, creepy crawly?”

“Mattie. Please stop,” Billy said. Richard realized the boy was speaking to her as if she was a powder keg that could explode if mishandled. Or perhaps as if she was a dangerous pet. Richard suddenly felt afraid. What would she do if Billy said the wrong thing to her? It was clear that they had been talking to each other this way for a very long time. Why was Billy so afraid of this little girl?

Before he could ask any of these questions, they all heard the screaming.

It was the most horrific sound that Richard had ever heard, and he felt his hands clench, and come up in front of his face as if he was going to need to defend himself against something terrible. In contrast, Mattie squealed in delight, clapped her hands, and wheeled away from them. She returned to her place in the center of the lobby, as if waiting for someone, her eyes fixed on the hallway that led to the theaters.

Richard turned to look at Billy, and was getting ready to put a hand on his shoulder, when the screaming began anew. This time, even more terrifyingly loud and wrenching. The little girl stood stock still on the blood smeared floor, staring in anticipation at the source of the screams. And Billy looked as if he had lost all hope—that everything he had feared was finally coming to fruition all around him, and that there was nothing he could do to stop it. Richard felt like he was just a witness to this horrifying tableau and wanted nothing other than for the screaming to stop.

Eventually it did. But only when a figure stumbled into the hallway and crawled forward into the lobby out of the darkness.

Richard could hardly believe what he was seeing.

The figure was of a man in a uniform so bloody that it was almost impossible to recognize it for what it was. But in contrast to the uniform, the man’s hands were clean, and in one of them, he gripped a blood-stained knife. His face, although it was contorted in horror and moaning like a wounded animal, was also clean, and his hair seemed neatly combed.

Richard recognized the face instantly, from the picture on the TV. This was Bradley Seward—the airman from Dugway who had committed the murders in the theater.

Or rather, he knew, it was the ghost of Bradley Seward.

Mattie watched the new ghost emerge from the dark hallway, and then collapse in the lobby, his head in his hands. He tried dropping the knife twice, and each time it reappeared in his hand. Finally, he slipped it into a pocket of his jacket, and it stayed there. He moaned and fell back against the concession counter, the look of horror on his face not diminishing in the slightest as he scanned the devastation visible everywhere in the lobby.

He didn’t appear to see Mattie at all.

The little girl could not have been more ecstatic. She danced in front of the man, singing her song, and even caressing his cheeks.

Finally she bent down and took his terrified face in her hands. “My angel,” she said. “My dear, dear angel. Mommy is here. It’s okay. Shhhhh…. Mommy is here.” She bent down and kissed the top of his head. And to Richard’s surprise, the terrified man appeared to calm, ever so slightly.

Mattie turned to Billy, and the look of triumph on her face was such a dramatic contrast to the evil little girl she had been, that Richard almost couldn’t recognize her.

“God gave him to me!” she yelled at the boy. “He’s my second angel! God gave him to me because he loves me and he’s told me I’ll be with him forever!” She broke into a high-pitched giggling laugh.

“I’m his favorite!!!

 The scene was so surreal that Richard had a hard time believing that it was actually happening. Mattie bent down to the terrified man in the lobby, who had now resumed his low moaning, his eyes darting in fear from one side of the room to the other.

“It’s okay, baby angel. I know the men are watching, but they’re bad men. They don’t serve God the way you and I do. Don’t pay any attention to the bad men.” Then she sang again, stroking the man’s face.

How much is that doggie in the window

The song calmed the man further, although it was clear he still could not see his new mistress. His face relaxed, and the moaning stopped. There was even a small smile that formed on his face, and he extended his arms, as if he was longing for someone to come into them. Someone he couldn’t see.

Mattie put a hand on the man’s shoulder, and slowly, he rose to his feet. Like a zombie, he shuffled forward, his face blank now, but exuding such longing and despair that it hurt Richard to look on him.

Mattie continued her song, and walked with him out of the lobby, and into the food court. Billy and Richard followed behind, as the little girl and the pilot turned to the left, and walked toward the outside doors.

Mattie looked back at the pair, standing mutely in the center of the courtyard. Richard was suddenly self-conscious, realizing how they looked: The tall, stocky man with the gray beard, and the short, adolescent boy, looking like a mismatched father and son. She just stared at them, and then she laughed. It was a laugh of dismissal, like she now realized they were of no importance to her. They meant nothing, and so she could easily turn her back on them.

She turned, and with one hand on the man’s elbow, they both passed through the doors and into the night.

Richard heard her voice drifting back as they walked away. It was a new verse to the same nursery rhyme. One that Richard had never heard.

I must take a trip to California
And leave my poor sweetheart alone
If he has a dog he won’t be lonesome
And the doggie will have a good home

When she was gone, Billy and Richard stood for a few minutes in silence. Then Billy turned and walked sadly to the table where they had been sitting. He sagged into the seat as if he weighed a ton, and put his face in his hands.

Finally, Richard spoke.

“That was Mattie.”

“Yes.”

“And what does she have to do with that guy? Wasn’t he the man who killed all these people here?”

“Yes. His name is Bradley. And he is an innocent. Or at least, he was. As was Mattie, long ago. But she’s not an innocent anymore.” Billy lifted his head from his hands, and Richard could see that there were actual tears there now, dripping down his cheek and disappearing into the ether as they fell.

“You may think of her as a demon, but she calls herself an angel. She possessed Bradley Seward and caused him to massacre all those people in the theater, just as Justin possessed the boy who shot you.”

Of course, Richard thought. Why didn’t I see that before?

“Now he’s returned, just like you did. But because of what Mattie made him do before he died, he’s not like you. He belongs to her.” Billy sighed and leaned back in his chair, staring at the vaulted ceiling. “The Wanderer has given him to Mattie as a gift. And he makes her stronger. More dangerous. He’s not her first victim. He may not even be the first one that has returned.”

“So they don’t always come back?”

Billy wiped his tears with his shirt sleeve, seeming to have finally gotten control of his emotions. “No, they usually don’t. I’m not sure exactly how it works, but I think only the strongest angels can forge a link that can bring back a victim. And always, the Wanderer has to allow it. Or maybe he is the one that brings them back, all on his own. I don’t know. But Mattie has been waiting for hers. It means she’s stronger now. More dangerous.”

“Are there any more like her?” Richard asked.

“Yes. Not many as powerful. But there are… many.”

Richard paused, putting the pieces together. He took a long time before he spoke again. “So, all this chaos in the city… The murders… The suicides… My murder. All of it is because of Mattie?” Before Billy could respond, he corrected himself. “No, not Mattie. Or not just Mattie. There is a horde of creatures like her out there?”

Billy half smiled, pleased that Richard understood. “Yes. They’ve been learning to possess the living, just as Mattie did with Bradley. And the way Justin did with Howard. And I fear that now that they can control the living, there is no end to the death and destruction they can cause.” He put his face back in his hands. “Richard, this is only the tip of the iceberg. I fear that something much, much bigger is coming. Like what we’ve seen so far is just… practice.”

The silence in the food court seemed deafening, and only slowly did Richard realize that the shoppers in the mall beyond the metal archway were still milling there, and he could hear their voices drifting in.

“So, what happens now?”

Billy’s voice sounded numb. “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? For an answer to that, you’ll have to ask the Wanderer. Maybe you can ask him when he gives you a call.”

Richard looked into the blood-stained lobby of the theater. It was silent and dark except for the light from the popcorn machines and the light of the courtyard bleeding in upon the gore. He looked at Billy alone across the table from him. He even imagined he could smell the odor of old blood and death, drifting their way from the lobby. Richard looked past the concession counter and could see the hallway where Bradley had emerged. He couldn’t help but imagine the horrors that had happened in those dark recesses.

And then he looked at the people beyond the archway. Living, breathing, loving human beings. Humans who did not know they were all prey for creatures like Mattie. Creatures like Justin. And despite all the sadness, Richard could feel himself growing angry. He didn’t know if his anger was at Billy, or at Mattie, or at Bradley, or at God—the real one, or the pretend one. But it was a powerful fury, and it boiled out.

“And who the hell are you, Billy? What is your role in this? Why aren’t you enthralled by this Wanderer the way that she is?”

Billy just looked at him, and Richard’s anger cooled immediately. There was no reason to snap at this boy. He might be the only good and pure person in this whole mess. In that moment, he reminded him of Keith—innocent and guileless, and only believing in the good of the world. Richard felt ashamed, and wanted to touch the boy’s cheeks, just to reassure himself there was still something, or someone, noble in all of this.

“I’m sorry, Richard. I promised I’d tell you what I know. And I will. Perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.” The boy leaned back in his chair, his face clear, as he drifted into memory.

“My name is Billy Travers, and I died in Salt Lake City, in May of 1857…”

Richard sat down in the chair across from Billy, ready to listen.

Over the next hour, Richard stared in silence as Billy unfurled the long arc of his life, and of his death. He learned about Frances, the girl Billy loved. He learned about the cowhands who came to their cabin in the south and murdered the family that had become his own.

And Billy told him that after the murders, he went with the cowhands of the Fancher Train, seeking revenge…

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.

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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. As a poet, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre; and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He enjoys hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop me a line, and consider supporting my work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. More than half of the the trilogy's over 200 chapters are already available there for subscribers.

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