Chapter 2.6: Spectral Mumbo Jumbo
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, 11:55 pm
Billy paused in his story. Richard didn’t think it was because he was waiting for him to speak, but because the boy was just lost in memories he hadn’t revisited in decades. It was clear that, in the telling, Billy had been transported back to the horrors of that summer. Richard finally broke the silence.
“Why couldn’t she escape from the cabin?” he asked. “You said most of us can walk through walls fairly quickly.”
Billy took a deep breath, and finally, his eyes focused on Richard.
“Most can, but it can vary widely. Remember, it took me months before I finally realized it was possible. It was the day that the rain fell through me as I was walking with the Fancher train. But even if Mattie had learned that trick early, as you did, likely it was the terror that prevented her from using it. Her mind was so tortured by what she experienced she couldn’t summon the calmness required to pass through the cabin walls.”
“I wasn’t calm,” Richard countered. “In fact, I was freaking out and hurling myself at the door to get out, just like she was. How could I have done it then, if being able to pass through walls requires calm?”
Billy looked frustrated that he didn’t have a simple answer for that question. Finally, he just sighed and said, “There are many things about you I don’t understand, Richard.”
The older man gritted his teeth. “Okay. We’ll let that be. Let’s try this one: Why was it you couldn’t see her then, but you can now?”
“The Eye is one of the gifts. And like the other gifts, it develops over time. The gifts are like images on a photograph. At first, there is nothing there. Only slowly and with the proper conditions, do you first see shapes, and then eventually, details. And the Eye takes much more time than the simple trick of walking through walls. For both Mattie and myself, it was decades before we could actually see, and then eventually hear, each other.”
“And so all you did while you were waiting for all those years was just follow her around, because of the tug in your head. Forgive me, but that sounds rather pathetic.”
Billy actually smiled at that. “I’m a patient guy, Richard, but nobody is that patient. No, I didn’t follow her all the time. I always knew where she was, and I would check in on her from time to time over those first years. But it did neither of us any good for me to just follow her about. I soon sensed that my presence with her actually increased her anxiety, rather than relieving it.”
“So what did you do?”
“I had something else to do that seemed more important during those first years.”
“And what was that?”
“Why, finding a way out of the Hereafter, of course.”
Now it was Richard’s turn to laugh. “And obviously, you didn’t.”
“No. But not for lack of trying. I still wanted desperately to find my parents in California, so I needed to understand where those boundaries were between our world and the outside. So I methodically worked on charting it out, in my head. I learned to sense when I was near the boundary, and I could then walk parallel to it, testing to see if there were gaps or weak spots.”
“And you found none.”
“None. I had hoped that the Hereafter was like a bottle, and I’d eventually find the open end. But it’s not a bottle. It’s a complete bubble, with no way out at all.” Richard could see a veil of melancholy drop over Billy’s face. “At first, I dreamed of finding my parents. But after fifty years of trying to find a way out, I realized they were probably dead. But still, I finished mapping it. In my mind only, of course, not being able to chart it out on paper.”
“So, how big is this… ghost zone?”
“I don’t call it that. To me, it’s the Hereafter, and it always will be.”
“Okay. So how big?”
“Very. It is a giant oval, extending over a good part of northern Utah. It is bounded by the Wasatch mountains on the east. In fact, we’re only about three miles from the eastern edge right now. The border is right at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where I died. In the west, it extends past the Salt Flats to almost exactly the Nevada state line, at Wendover.”
“Wow, that’s a long way. Something over a hundred miles?”
“One hundred and fifteen, to be precise. And north to south, it’s even bigger. It contains virtually all the Salt Flats, both north and south of I-80. In the north, it encompasses all of the Great Salt Lake, except for a tiny arm at the very northern end. Going up I-15, it contains Layton, but cuts just to the west of Ogden. South, it goes down to about Manti and Fillmore.”
Richard was trying to picture the edge of the Hereafter, and it kept resolving in his imagination to a giant, circular wall. Or maybe a giant rubber band that flung you back whenever you threw yourself against it.
“So it sounds like its longer, north to south.”
“Yes, exactly. It’s about a hundred and ninety miles north to south, compared to a hundred and fifteen the other direction. So if you want to picture it, picture a giant oval. But not standing straight up. Tipping a little, toward the west.”
“Can you go over it?”
“Not if my own attempted trip on an airplane in 1955 is any indication. And I suspect you couldn’t tunnel under it either, although I’ve never had an opportunity to attempt that.
“So you never found a way out. Do you think any of us ever has?”
“No. Not to my knowledge, at least. Richard, I just don’t think there is any way out of the Salt Lake Valley. In fact, my intuition says that if you were ever able to cross that boundary, it would result in you passing out of this world, and on to whatever lies beyond. To leave the Hereafter is to resume the journey that was interrupted when we were trapped here. It’s like we’re living in a bubble, somehow ripped out of the normal flow from life to death.” Billy folded his hands, and at that moment Richard could see the years weighing on him. “I have no proof that this is true, but I believe that there is no world for ghosts outside of the Hereafter.”
“You do realize how fucking depressing that is, don’t you?” Richard said with a sigh.
“Yes. I certainly do.”
“So if there is no way out, what happens to us, eventually?”
“I can’t sugarcoat that, Richard. The truth is, most ghosts go mad, eventually. Even the old ones, with time. Like Mattie, many of us go mad almost immediately, within the first days or weeks of our arrival back here. The shock of it is simply more than most minds can take. For the rest… Well, the madness can take a long time to develop in some, but I think it will claim us all, eventually.
“That’s a cheery thought,” Richard said, disgusted. “An entire valley eventually full to overflowing with mad ghosts, bumping against each other and moaning for eternity.”
“That image may be more accurate than you know. Think of the image of the ghost in popular literature. The white sheet, for instance. So many of the dead here are still wearing the white sheets under which they died, either at home, or in the hospital. And the moaning—you’ll hear it from the mad ones. All we’re really lacking are some chains to rattle. Although there are some of the dead at Point of the Mountain that even have those.”
“I’ve seen the white sheets. There was a ghost in the library, dragging one behind him. And some of the other ghosts I saw up at the University had them wrapped around their shoulders.”
Billy was silent, waiting for Richard’s next question.
“So how many are we talking about. How many ghosts are there in… the Hereafter?”
“It’s hard to say. I estimate that an average of one new ghost shows up every week now. But that can vary. We can get several one week, and then none for a month. But I think fifty or so a year is probably close to right.”
“That’s a lot. Over the better part of two centuries?”
“Yes, but remember, it was slower in the earlier years. So it’s really impossible to guess. But the number must be thousands, to be sure.
Richard felt an urgent question bubbling up, but was unsure how to phrase it. “I’m assuming that with what Mattie did…. Murder all those people in the theater… I’m assuming she’s like Justin. You said he was under the influence of the one you call the Wanderer.”
“And how many of those thousands of ghosts are like Mattie and Justin? How many of those does the Wanderer have sway over?” he asked.
Billy shrugged his shoulders; a gesture that made him look his physical age of fifteen, or even younger. “I’m not sure. But I don’t think the Wanderer can even contact the most insane among us. And of the sane ghosts I have encountered, most do not seem to have been contacted. Or else they have resisted his sway. I think the number of ghosts like Mattie must be small compared to those.”
“So how many?”
“I wish I knew. Maybe a couple hundred, but that is just a wild guess.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.”
Billy actually glared. “No? Can you imagine how much destruction even that number could cause? Imagine a few hundred Matties, each able to possess anyone they liked, and then commit atrocities which could even make what happened here in this theater pale in comparison. Not just once, but over and over again. Many times, every day.”
Richard swallowed hard. “Okay, I see what you’re saying. Based on what Mattie and Justin have done, that sounds… pretty bad.” Richard felt a cold dread creeping up his spine as he contemplated this army of malevolent ghosts. “It’s still hard to believe. Mattie is just a little girl…”
“Richard,” Billy said with a sigh. “Mattie is no little girl. You have to understand that. And Justin is no longer the boy you loved and hurt. They have become… something else.”
“I understand that. It’s just hard to wrap my head around.” Richard looked at Billy. “Like you. To me, you look like some kid, maybe sixteen years old…”
“I was fifteen when I died,” Billy said.
“…and you don’t seem like some kid from the old West. You don’t talk like a cowboy. You use words better than some of my colleagues at the University. In fact, forgive me for saying this, but you seem like an old man. A wise and somewhat sad old man. Like a guru in an ashram or something.”
Billy took a deep breath before replying. And when he did, his eyes were locked onto Richard so hard that it made him squirm.
“I am an old man, Richard. A very old man. I may look fifteen, but I’m actually over one hundred and eighty years old, and I’ve watched all but a handful of those years unfold here in Utah. When you have nothing to do with your life but observe, you make observation and learning an art form. Death can sharpen the mind. I’ve seen nearly every movie released since they were invented. I’ve sat through lectures at the University until I can tell you how particle physics and string theory work. I sat with Joe Hill the night before his execution, and I held the hand of Gary Gilmore as his heart slowly stopped beating. And no, neither Joe nor Gary came back, although I waited for them both. I’ve spent years sitting in meditation with Buddhist monks, and Catholic Priests, and even Mormon prophets. I’ve seen operas and symphonies and once sat with a homeless man as he froze to death outside Temple Square. And I even watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a few hundred times, back in the 70s and 80s, before they closed the Blue Mouse. I’ve held the hand of more drug addicts and acid trippers than any living person on the planet. I have attended at more deaths than Mother Teresa, and more births than most midwives. Trust me, Richard. I’m no longer a fifteen-year-old boy bouncing along on the back of a wagon train.”
“Then why isn’t Mattie like that? Why is she still a little girl?”
“The insane ones like Mattie are almost frozen in time. Only by keeping the mind active are those of us who stay sane able to keep from falling into the same abyss that claims most ghosts.”
Richard remembered again the ghosts in the library; wandering the stacks and reading over the shoulders of the students.
“I saw a man in the library walking slowly down the aisles of books, his head tilted to the side, reading each spine to himself. I could see his lips moving as he read. And I had the crazy idea that he was using the book titles to compose poetry in his head. That maybe, locked in his mind, was some of the greatest poetry ever composed. And that it would be locked away there for an eternity. It made me sad to think of it.”
“You could well be correct.”
“Why couldn’t Mattie have found something to keep her from going insane? The way that you did?”
“I believe that by the time she left that cabin, there was very little of her soul left. She wasn’t yet truly mad. Her mind was still there, but she was lost. She no longer had any hope, any compassion, or even any humanity. And in that state, she was easy prey for the Wanderer.” Billy sighed, and his eyes dropped to stare at the ground. “But it was more than that. There was something dark in Mattie, even before her death. I always sensed it. Dying only let that part of her loose, and now there is very little of the girl I called ‘Princess’ left.”
The conversation lapsed into silence for a moment. Richard could feel the weight of everything Billy was telling him, and it was pressing so heavily on his heart that it felt like his hope too was nearly gone. Finally, he groaned and put his head on the table in front of him. The darkness felt good on his closed eyes.
“So, it’s inevitable then. For us all, eventually, to go mad?”
Billy’s voice was soft now, and Richard felt him lean very close. “No, perhaps not. Or perhaps, not any more. Before you arrived, I believed that. But now, I’m not so sure.”
Richard raised his head to look at the boy. “Why? What changed your mind?”
“Look at yourself, Richard. You’ve been back just three days, and you can see me, hear me, touch me.” Billy reached out a hand to Richard and grasped his forearm. Their faces were very close now, and Richard could feel the touch, and the warmth on his arm made every hair rise. He could even imagine he felt Billy’s breath on his face. He hadn’t realized how badly he longed for real human touch until he felt it again. He couldn’t help himself. He put one hand over Billy’s on his arm and held his hand there. He felt the tears springing to his eyes.
Billy didn’t seem to notice. He was looking at Richard with a strange intensity. “You have nearly all the gifts. Hell, you may even have them all, for all I know. You may have ones even I don’t have, or perhaps ones I don’t even know exist. I’ve never met a ghost that could do so much, even after thirty or forty years, let alone, the first days of his return.”
“I don’t think…” Richard said, but Billy cut him off.
“And yet, it’s more than that. When I look at you, I feel something I haven’t felt for many years. Since long before the Wanderer first started speaking to the ghosts, decades ago. I may not have felt it since I watched Frances die in front of me, unable to do anything to help her.”
“And what is that?” Richard asked.
“Hope,” Billy said.
The word shocked Richard. And he pulled himself back from Billy’s touch. He suddenly felt as if the boy had dropped a great weight on his shoulders. One he hadn’t asked for. One he wasn’t sure he was willing to carry.
“I don’t think…” he cleared his throat and continued. “I don’t think you’d be smart to put your hope in me, Billy. Not for anything. I’m more fucking confused about what is happening here than you are. Than any of you. There isn’t anything I can do…”
“Richard, listen to me. The chaos that is engulfing this city is only going to get worse. What happened to you, and to the kids in this theater… All that is just… practice. It’s just a dry run. The violence and the death are going to keep happening, and it’s going to get worse and worse. Have you watched the news? Either since you’ve been back, or even in the weeks before you died?”
“I have. It’s terrifying. Things like this don’t normally happen in Salt Lake City.”
“No, they don’t. I don’t have the statistics, but I can promise you that the reports of murders and suicides have spiked, all over the city. Everywhere in the Hereafter, in fact. I can feel the Wanderer working himself up to something far more devastating than any of what has happened so far. This is just the start. Just a taste. The main event is coming, and if we don’t do something, it will destroy this city, and everyone in it.”
Richard was on his feet now, and had started to pace again, looking at the boy as if he were a stranger.
“But none of this has anything to do with me!”
“Richard, don’t be a fool!” Billy stopped himself, and took a breath before continuing. “Richard, you are an anomaly and you amaze me. But you know almost nothing about what is going on. And no matter what I tell you, there is no way for me to communicate to you what we are up against, and the darkness that is coming to this valley without your help. We need you. This whole city needs you.” Billy was on his feet now as well, watching as Richard paced back and forth in front of him. “And you need to stay with me, so I can help you understand how important you are. This world you’ve been in for just three days is more complex, sad, and beautiful than you know. Let me show it to you. Let me help you help us!”
That was all Richard could take, and he exploded at the boy.
“Billy, you are the fool! You think I’m a good man? You think I’m going to be some kind of savior for this insane asylum? Well, I’m not! I am not your savior, and I am not even your fucking friend!”
“No, stop! You need to understand something, and I’m going to put it to you plainly.” Richard faced the boy, and his finger quivered in front of the boy’s face. And he spoke every word slowly and carefully.
“I am not a good man! There are things I’ve done… Things in my past, that haunt me. What I did to Justin was unforgivable. And all things considered, I think it’s pretty clear that I’ve been a damn poor partner to Keith.” Richard’s tears coursed down his cheeks now. “The one thing I promised Keith was that I would never leave him. And I fucking left him! And not just by dying, but by coming with you, tonight. I should be with him right now, not arguing with some kid that wants to put his delusions of grandeur on me!”
“Richard, I would know if you were a bad person.”
“You know nothing, Billy Travers!” Richard shouted, throwing the Game of Thrones reference back in Billy’s face. “I’m a lousy partner, a lousy friend, and a lousy human being. I’ve been a selfish bastard most of my life, and I’ve hidden it behind a shell of self-respect and fake dignity that makes me sick when I think of it.”
He stopped, waiting for Billy to say something, but the boy was just looking at him now, his eyes wide.
“Let me tell you something, Billy. Do you want to know what thought crossed my mind as soon as you grabbed my wrist outside the courthouse? You want to know what your ‘savior’ thought? Well, here it is. When I realized you could touch me, the first thing I wondered is if that meant we could fuck. Here I am, meeting the first real person who wasn’t just a block of stone since I died, and the first thought I have is whether or not I could get into your cheap-assed, one legged, hacked off pants.”
Richard sank back into the chair. And found that now that he had made that confession, he could no longer look at Billy.
“I’ve never in my life touched someone under age. I haven’t even wanted to. And it’s not even that I want to fuck you now. I just don’t have the strength to face an eternity alone. And in everything you’ve told me, you haven’t given me any reason to believe that I have anything else in my future to look forward to except that. Being alone forever. Never feeling the touch of another man. At best, I’ll be like you in two hundred years, waxing wise over the ruins of this god-damn, miserable city.” Richard’s voice squeaked out, spent, and he hid his face in his hands, more from shame than exhaustion. He felt his eyes burning, and his hatred of himself was the only emotion he had left.
He felt Billy put a hand on his head. It was almost a fatherly gesture. It was kind, gentle, and almost reassuring. The touch only deepened his shame, and he still couldn’t look at the boy.
“If you’re looking for a savior,” Richard finally managed, “then you need to keep looking. I can’t take responsibility for all this. I don’t want any part of your spectral mumbo jumbo. I’ve already abandoned the person I loved when he needed me the most. I’m done here. I need to go back to Keith.”
Billy continued to stroke his hair, and Richard felt his resolve weakening under the boy’s touch. It was calming, comforting, and reassuring. And he desperately longed for a little peace.
“I’m afraid that you can’t avoid this, my friend,” Billy said, quietly. “Whether either of us wants it to be true or not, it’s clear that you are part of what is coming. A hugely important part. And like it or not, you’re stuck with us in the Hereafter. You’re stuck, just like the rest of us. You can’t escape it by pretending it’s not happening.”
“Watch me,” Richard said, quietly.
“Richard, try to understand. The only way you can truly abandon Keith is by going back to him now. You can’t do anything to help him by sitting helplessly at his side while his world crumbles. But you can help him, and the rest of the people in this city, by helping us fight what is coming. That is the only way you can keep him safe.”
“I… can’t…” Richard said, and he wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. “I’m not strong enough…”
“Richard, I know what you’re thinking. I know what truly tempts you. And it’s not wanting to fuck me. It’s the temptation you’re feeling to be back inside a living person. To possess them. To feel alive again. Now that you know it’s possible, the desire for it is eating you from the inside.”
Richard wanted to be angry at the boy, but found he couldn’t. He was right. Ever since he had seen what both Mattie and Justin could do, he had imagined nothing except what it would be like to once again be in living flesh. And as strong as that temptation felt to him now, after only three days, how could he ever endure it for an eternity?
Richard looked into Billy’s eyes, and could see that the boy understood all this. That he had probably understood the temptation long before Richard knew himself.
“Richard, please listen to me. Nothing I have said to you is as important as what I’m going to tell you right now. I need you to look at me, and hear me, and understand what I’m saying.” Billy slid back into his chair and reached both hands across the table. He held each side of Richard’s head, and held so firmly that Richard could not turn away from him.
“I know you are imagining what it would be like to possess. I know you are dreaming of being in a body that could once again hold Keith, lie with him, touch him, taste him. I know these things are roaring in your brain, so loud you cannot hear much else. But please, hear this:” He squeezed Richard’s face even harder, and locked their eyes together. Richard wanted to turn away, but couldn’t.
“You must not do it. You must not possess the living. Ever. It is the forbidden Fifth Gift, and it is an abomination. It is madness. And worse, it is the violation of an innocent. It would be the violation of two innocents. Both the one you possessed and of Keith. If you ever gave in to the temptation, both your soul, and Keith’s could be lost forever.”
Richard finally wrenched his face away from the boy’s hands and turned away.
“But at least I could protect him,” Richard said, pathetically. I could fight off anything that came to hurt him.”
“The only way to protect him, to keep him safe,” Billy said, “is to stop the Wanderer from turning his city to rubble.”
Richard was on his feet and lurching away from Billy, even before he realized he had decided to leave. As he stumbled across the food court, he could hear Billy yelling after him.
“He’s going to contact you, Richard. He’s going to promise you things. Perhaps he’ll promise you the Ocean of God. Perhaps he’ll promise you Keith. But don’t believe him. He lies, and he will do anything to eliminate the threat you pose!”
He could hear Billy calling his name as he broke into a run and flew through the glass doors of the courtyard. He couldn’t help but glance over his shoulder from the parking lot. Billy stood there alone in the center of the courtyard, his hands stretched out to his sides as if in supplication or surrender. And even from this distance, Richard could see the pleading on the boy’s face.
But he turned away, focused on the tug of Keith’s presence that he felt in his forehead, and ran.
“I won’t leave you, Baby Bear!” he said, as he ran. “I won’t leave you the way I left Justin!”
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.