The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 2.3: Honesty

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.

June 8, 6:00 pm

Keith wondered, as they pulled into the parking lot at Trolley Square, if his mind had blocked out much of what happened at the hearing, or whether it had simply been too confusing for his brain to take it in. In those final, chaotic seconds, he had been struggling to keep his mind focused on what the judge was saying, even though all he really wanted to do was to stare at the man who had killed Richard.

That’s him, he had been thinking. That’s the man that stood on our porch, looked in the window at the two of us, and then fired a bullet through Richard’s skull. Why? Why would this shy-looking boy do something so horrible?

He had been in the midst of those thoughts when the hearing room exploded all around him.

All he could recall clearly now was Howard Gunderson leaping over the red railing and landing in the aisle in a crouch, his left hand on the floor, and his right holding a blue ballpoint pen that he gripped like a knife. And then their eyes had locked, and the man was coming at him like a freight train. Keith was frozen, and for a fraction of a second, he thought for sure he was about to die.

So he wanted us both, he thought, and wondered if it would be his last.

He hadn’t seen Pil strike the blow in the center of the boy’s chest. But he saw Gunderson knocked back with such force that he wondered if he would have broken ribs. The blow severed their eye contact, and Keith was able to shake his head and remember where he was…

And then he was being picked up and hustled out of the courtroom, amid a lot of other screaming and flailing bodies. He didn’t remember getting his feet under him, and he didn’t remember telling his body to run. But he found himself supported between Michelle and Pil, sprinting out of the hearing room and heading toward the front exits of the Matheson Courthouse. Within thirty seconds of Pil landing that blow on Howard Gunderson’s chest, the trio had burst into the sunlight and were circling the building, heading toward Big Bird in the parking lot behind the building. None of them spoke a word as they ran.

Fumbling for her keys and still shaking, Michelle started the SUV and tore out of the Matheson Courthouse parking lot. She ripped down Main, and then took a left through a yellow light onto 6th South, where she finally took the pressure off of the accelerator. They drove in silence for several blocks, until Michelle turned slowly onto 7th East, and then parked the SUV in the lot of Trolley Square, right under the old water tower.

They all let out a breath of relief when she put Big Bird in park and turned off the engine.

They sat silently for a long time, just listening to the engine tick as it cooled. Eventually, Keith opened his window and hung his head out like a dog, trying to get air.

Finally, Michelle broke the silence, looking at Pil in the rear-view mirror.

“How did you know to get us out of there so fast?” Michelle asked her husband.

Pil rolled down his own window, the sun pouring in on him in the back seat. His knuckles were white where he gripped the door of the car, and beads of perspiration stood out on his broad forehead. “I don’t know,” he said, taking a deep breath of the warm summer air. “But I figured they’d lock the place down once they got their wits about them. I didn’t want us stuck in there and getting interrogated, either by the cops or the reporters. I thought the best thing to do was just get us out.”

Keith turned in his seat to look at the big man behind him with gratitude. “Thank you, Beastie. I don’t think I could have dealt with more questions.”

“They may still call and want an interview or something,” Michelle said with a sigh. She had calmed her trembling, and her voice had become steady.

“Who?” Pil asked. “The cops or the press?”

“I don’t know. Both, maybe.”

They paused their conversation while a woman with a baby got into the car next to them. It took her a long time, as she strapped the baby into the car seat, and then finally got in the driver’s side. They all sat silently until her car pulled out of the parking space. Pil was staring out the window now, biting a fingernail, and deep in thought. They all just sat in silence for a moment, watching the traffic whiz by on 7th East.

“He wanted to kill me,” Keith said suddenly.

The SUV seemed unnaturally silent as his words faded. When Keith looked up, he could see that Michelle and Pil were gazing at each other with concern in the rear-view mirror.

“Didn’t you see it? He had a pen in his hand. He wanted to stab me.”

“Pea, I think he was just trying to get out of the courtroom,” Michelle said, taking his hand. “He was trying to climb over everybody, and we were just in his way. I don’t think he knows who you are.”

“Of course he does,” Keith snapped, with impatience in his voice he immediately regretted. He turned sideways to look at Michelle. “He saw me with Richard the night he was shot. I think maybe he wanted to kill us both that night, but something…” His voice trailed off. “Something happened. I don’t know what. But I don’t think he finished what he came to do. I saw it in his eyes. I think he still wants to kill me.”

Keith felt Pil’s and Michelle’s eyes on him, as if he had lost his mind. “Oh, honey, I don’t think so…” Michelle said, squeezing his hand. Keith didn’t respond, and the conversation went silent.

They don’t believe me, Keith thought. But I’m not wrong. I saw it. I know he was looking at me. I saw the pen. If Pil hadn’t… his thoughts trailed off, unwilling to articulate what would have come next.

I’ve cheated death now. Not once, but twice…

Michelle tried to change the subject. “Well,” she said with fake brightness in her voice. “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. Let’s say we get some dinner. How about the Old Spaghetti Factory?”

Keith knew it was right behind them, in the Trolley Square complex. He and Michelle had eaten there a lot, and it was also a place he had frequented with Richard. Part of him didn’t want to go in, but he had to admit, he was famished. He’d skipped lunch, worried about the hearing, and dinner sounded really good.

“Sure,” said Keith.

“You know me,” Pil said with a broad grin. “I’m a Pastafarian.”

The meal was awkward, despite the fast service and the perky waitress. The trio tested out several topics of conversation, but they all sputtered and died on the table. When the food came, they just ate in silence, and none of them wanted desert.

“How about staying with us tonight, Pea?” Michelle asked, as they were standing outside of Big Bird in the quickly fading light of early evening.

“No, I think I need to be at home,” Keith said.

There was a flash of annoyance across Michelle’s face that made Keith glance away. She chewed on what to say for a moment, and finally she spoke.

“Keith, you have nothing to prove. I know you want to be strong, but it’s okay. You don’t have to be strong all the time. It’s okay to let the people that love you take care of you. There’s no reason you should have to be in that house again, alone, another night. Come stay with us. At least for a day or two.”

When Keith looked up, it wasn’t Michelle he looked at, but Pil. He felt the big man’s eyes on him, and they were soft, caring, and gentle. Unaccountably, he felt his throat close up, and wasn’t sure he’d be able to answer Michelle at all.

“Honey, it’s fine,” Pil said, draping a heavy arm around his wife’s shoulders. “Keith knows we love him. And he knows we’re just a three-minute walk away. He’ll call us if he needs us.”

Keith felt so much gratitude toward Pil in that instant that he felt his eyes growing moist. He loved Michelle, but her intense mothering of him right now wasn’t helping. Somehow, Pil understood that his desire to be alone tonight wasn’t just because he was trying to be strong. It was what he needed. It was how he could reduce the stimulation, both good and bad, and give his mind a chance to make sense of everything.

Michelle reluctantly accepted his decision, even though Keith could see she was churning inside—wanting to argue with both him and her husband. Finally, she sighed, and simply said, “Fine.”

They got into Big Bird, and the drive back to the Avenues was mostly in silence. Just before they arrived, Michelle sighed, and looked across at Keith in the passenger seat.

“I’m sorry, Pea,” she said.

Keith thought she meant about pushing him to stay with them tonight, and he was about to reassure her that everything was fine. But she continued. “I’m sorry as hell that we took you to that hearing. I know you were the one that wanted to go, but I don’t think it did any of us any good. I’m sick to death at what happened there. And if this whole thing sets you back… You know, makes things worse for you… Well, I’ll never forgive any of us.”

Keith lifted her hand and kissed the back of it. “Pod, I’m fine. In a weird way, it’s actually comforting to think that it wasn’t just Richard that the boy was after.” He knew the second he said it that it wasn’t the right thing to say.

“You see, that’s what I mean. Honey, there is no evidence that Gunderson wanted to kill you. I hate that you now have that thought in your head.”

They had arrived, and he decided he wouldn’t respond to Michelle. If he did, they would probably get into a long conversation, and all three of them would still be sitting in the SUV when the sun came up. And he didn’t think he had that in him. He only wanted one thing right now, and that was to be alone, in his own home. So instead of responding, he just leaned over, kissed her cheek, and said. “It’s fine. I love you Pod.” And before she could reply, he had opened the door of the SUV and stepped out.

Both Michelle and Pil gave Keith long and lingering hugs on the sidewalk, and made him promise that he’d text them when he got up tomorrow. He said he would, and the couple stood, hand in hand, as he walked up the driveway, and let himself into the house. He waved back at them as he closed the door and locked it.

And then sank down onto the floor, shaking and listening until he heard the SUV start up and pull away from the curb.

He was still on the floor an hour later, when the need to pee finally made him get up and find his way to the bathroom. The effort made him realize how exhausted he was, and he used what little energy he had left to crawl into bed.

But he couldn’t sleep.

For an hour he laid there in the dark and the silence, his mind bouncing from one thought to another. He wondered if he had made the right decision to come home tonight. He thought he needed the quiet, but perhaps an evening with his friends would have kept his mind from doing these gyrations.

Eventually, he reached for his journal, and jotted down some notes about what had happened at the hearing, doing his best to describe how Howard Gunderson had looked at him in that brief instant when their eyes had met.

The writing felt good. As if the putting of words to paper made it all real, rather than just emotions ricocheting in his mind like a thousand ping pong balls. Seeing his words on the page reassured him it wasn’t all in his imagination.

Yes, Howard Gunderson had tried to kill me.

At 10:00, he put down his journal, and turned on the bedroom TV to watch the news. The hearing wasn’t the lead story, but it showed up about twenty minutes into the broadcast.

“Drama today at Salt Lake City’s Matheson Courthouse, where Howard Gunderson, the young man accused in the shooting death of University of Utah professor Richard Pratt, erupted in violence.”

The reporter was Morgan Jensen, and she was describing the scene over an artist’s rendering of Gunderson, sitting with his head down. Keith tuned out her words, focusing instead on the image of the boy who, even in the rough courthouse sketch, looked so sad and forlorn. Somehow the image triggered Keith’s suppressed memories, and the whole scene of Gunderson’s outburst rolled through his mind, like slow-motion newsreel footage.

In his memory, Gunderson’s face was at first hidden, as he sat on the far side of the red railing. He was scratching his hand, which he held in front of his face, and he was making some noises that were carrying all the way to the back of the courtroom. And then a wave rolled up his spine, as if he had suddenly received a jolt of electricity. Keith closed his eyes and remembered the boy upending the table and launching himself over the back of the seats, seeing it as clearly as if it was recorded on videotape. He watched as the boy leapt the railing, and landed in the center aisle. He followed the boy as he rushed forward, right until the very moment that Pil’s enormous arm entered the frame from the right, and smashed into the boy’s chest like a pile driver.

Keith concentrated and went over the memory again and again. And each time, he saw it. There was a tiny speck of blue in Gunderson’s right hand.

The pen.

It was real. He was certain of it. He had not been imagining.

The shot on the TV had returned to Morgan Jensen, who was now standing on the street outside the courthouse. “Family and friends of Richard Pratt quickly left the courtroom after the incident, and we’re waiting on official word as to Howard Gunderson’s condition. We’ll update this story as we get more information. Brenda, back to you in the studio…”

Keith flicked off the TV, and the silence was comforting in the dimly lit bedroom. But he kept seeing Howard Gunderson’s face as he leapt toward him, the ballpoint pen extended like a dagger.

And why? Keith wondered. Howard Gunderson doesn’t know me from Adam. Just like he didn’t know Richard.

The police hadn’t been able to find any connection between Howard and Richard or Keith, and he had told Carla Grayson how sure he was that the crime was random. Of course, he knew what they had been thinking. What they still probably thought. Carla Grayson had hinted as much in the interviews, although she had never asked the question explicitly. They all thought that Richard had been sleeping with the boy, and that what they had on their hands was a lover’s triangle gone terribly wrong. He could only imagine what it looked like to them. Old college professor and some young stud he picked up? Yeah, it probably seemed like the most likely scenario.

But it isn’t true.

He knew Richard had never met Howard Gunderson. He knew it as well as he knew anything. Or, at least, he thought he did.

How can I really know it? I mean, how can I know it for sure? he asked himself.

He did his best to face that question. Because the obvious answer was that no, he didn’t actually know. He couldn’t really be sure.

No, Richard would have told me.

He didn’t think he was deluding himself. He and Richard hadn’t always had a perfect relationship, but the one thing they both had that they treasured was their honesty. Long ago they had made it clear to each other that whatever happened, they would always tell each other the truth. Especially when it came to romantic or sexual connections, they would follow a policy of radical honesty and complete disclosure. They both trusted their relationship was solid enough to deal with the truth. Always.

They had been tested in their resolve over the years. Richard had pursued a three-month affair with a thirty-year-old teaching assistant in the Math department, starting about two years after he and Keith had moved in together. It was early in their relationship, and Keith had been afraid of losing him. But he had told Richard that he trusted him, and that whatever happened, he believed they would talk it through. And although those three months were long and stressful, he never felt that Richard was lying to him about the affair—or considering leaving him.

And then, three years ago, Keith too had pursued a boyfriend of his own. The man was a plumber he’d met during his brief flirtation with a dating app called Growlr. He had been about five years Richard’s senior, and he had been a lot of things that Richard wasn’t. He was a former high school football star that had gone adorably soft. Where Richard was an intellectual, Barry had probably never read a book in his life. Where Richard was complicated and sometimes difficult, Barry was simple to understand, and had no strong opinions about anything. The only thing he cared about was his love for old musicals and his voracious sexual appetite, which put even Richard’s to shame.

The two of them had sung show tunes and fucked like bunnies for six incredibly intense weeks. He later told Richard that his relationship with Barry had burned intense and hot, but burned out quickly because of that. In that way, it was nothing like the strong, steady flame he held for his husband.

There had been other flings, before and since, but none as serious. They had played sexually, together and alone, at bear parties, and for a while, they both had a thing for a hung cub named Pete. And although Keith had actually fantasized that the three might become a triad, it never materialized. He was still a trifle melancholy when he thought of Pete, and he knew Richard had been too. Right up to the day he died.

Throughout those affairs and flirtations, the two men had maintained their policy of honesty, and had talked through even the most stormy of emotions. And Keith believed that their connection had actually grown stronger because of their outside flings, rather than in spite of them. As Richard once said, it was always exciting to explore connections with other people, and then bring those experiences home to your partner.

Because of that history, Keith would not have put it past Richard to have a fling with someone like Howard Gunderson, although he seemed a little young even for Richard. Yes, he might very well have slept with the boy. That Keith could believe. What he couldn’t believe was that Richard would have done so without telling him about it.

He believed that. And yet… There was still a small, nagging voice in Keith’s mind that kept asking him if he really could be sure. Was he being foolish for trusting in Richard to such a degree?

The memory of Howard Gunderson’s eyes lingered in his mind. And not just the malice in those eyes. But also something else. Recognition. And a thought occurred to Keith that made his blood run cold.

What if I was the target all along? What if the bullet Richard took was meant for me? What if Gunderson was in love with Richard, and just wanted me out of the way?

He put down his journal.

The thought of it made him feel vulnerable. The pasta in his belly was rumbling. And he felt suddenly alone.

For the past several nights he had slept so well, feeling as if a calmness and peace enfolded him as he stretched out on the bed, and extended his hand onto Richard’s pillow. Hoping to capture that feeling again, he switched off the light and closed his eyes. But the feeling of being alone didn’t dissipate. He extended his hand and opened it, palm up, on Richard’s pillow.

But his hand remained cold and empty. And sleep was very slow to come.

Keith had never felt so alone.

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. His poems and short stories have appeared or journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre, Apparition Literary Journal, Grain, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He loves hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. All of the trilogy's over 207 chapters are available there for subscribers, and new poems, short stories, and other content is posted there every Friday.

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