“I never loved you. I never cared for you. You were just a hot piece of teenage ass, and I’m glad to be rid of you. Now get out.”
It wasn’t two minutes after Justin stormed out in tears, that Richard realized just how cruel, how sick, and how desperately untrue his words were. And how badly he must have hurt the boy. He was grateful that he’d turned his back on Justin as he spoke. If he’d seen the look on the boy’s face, it might have burned him to the ground.
He wanted to rush out and stop Justin before he could race away in his car, but he was sure the boy was long gone by now. And he loathed himself so badly in that moment that he couldn’t face anything or anyone. It was almost as if he was too ashamed to even show his face to the sun. So he went upstairs, where the sheets were still rumpled from their lovemaking that morning. He lay face down in them, trying to find Justin’s scent. They were still moist from sweat and semen, but there was no way to differentiate Justin’s musk from his own. So he just buried his face in the sheets and cried.
He spent most of the rest of that day alternating between depression and nausea. The intensity of his emotions had left Richard shocked and drained. But more than anything, it had left him confused.
He never expected that he had it in him to respond to Justin with such visceral hate, or that he could strike out at the boy the way he did. It was like he had been harboring some monster inside of him he had never even suspected. Justin was brilliant, but he was also young and emotionally immature. Richard had cut him absolutely no slack for that. How could he have treated the boy so viciously? What kind of human garbage was he?
Already he was trying to find a way to repair the damage. But he knew that right now would be the wrong time to apologize, or even to talk to the boy. The things he had said would likely poison any possibility of reconciliation for a very long time. Most likely, forever.
When he told me he was leaving, something inside of me broke. Why didn’t I see it coming? And why couldn’t I stop it?
Justin said he wasn’t sure that he was gay.
The rumpled, semen-spotted sheets on which he lay, and the memory of Justin crying out in passion with Richard’s hard cock deep inside him, made Richard want to laugh at that idea. But what if it were true? Orientation was different from behavior. People did things that were counter their orientation all the time—because they had to, because they were afraid, or to get something they wanted…
Or to try to please someone they cared for.
Maybe he had never really known Justin at all. Did the boy ever love him, or was it some kind of misplaced hero worship?
Richard pulled the sheets off the bed and stuffed them into the hamper. The bed looked barren, cold, and naked without them. The room felt as if someone had died there.
Richard might never know what had gone through Justin’s mind. But he had to face the reality of what had happened in his own. He’d denied his own rancid possessiveness, pushing it down into the weeds at the bottom of his consciousness. But he really couldn’t deny it now. He had fallen in love with Justin—not just casually, and certainly not in the way he’d slept with and dumped (or been dumped by) a score of men over the past fifteen years. Something in this lost, hungry, yearning, passionate boy had moved him. What right did an aging college professor have with someone so young, so innocent? He felt like he had defiled something sacred, to satisfy needs he didn’t even understand.
A dozen times that evening Richard walked to the phone, picked it up, and tried to dial Justin’s cell phone number. Sometimes he even made it to the third or fourth digit before slamming the phone back down.
What could I possibly say to him?
With new sheets on the bed, Richard spent a fitful night. He barely slept, hoping that the phone would ring in the dark, and that it would be Justin. But the phone didn’t ring, and by Saturday, the storm of emotion had calmed. He was even able to spend most of the day working on his most recent manuscript, and felt good about the changes. Slowly, the guilt lifted from him, and he even sensed a bit of relief.
Maybe I just dodged a bullet.
He was a professor in his mid-thirties, in love with an eighteen-year-old boy who was brilliant, but probably more like fourteen emotionally. Richard had stepped over a line that he knew very well was there, right from the beginning. But the thrill and the passion and the genuine love he had for the boy had robbed him of all good sense.
Richard had put everything at risk for Justin. For a hot young stud, and a chance to feel young again.
As he made his third cup of herbal tea Saturday night, he finally took the phone off the hook, and left it off. He needed to sleep, and he couldn’t spend the entire night waiting for it to ring. And to his surprise, he slept very well, with no dark or forbidden dreams. When he awoke the next morning, it was as if the incident with Justin was something he’d watched on TV the night before. The insanity of their conversation seemed very distant, and almost surreal.
With the clear light of day, he was sure that he’d never hear from or talk to Justin again. The realization was painful, but his heart would heal, and he would be better off. Even more important, Justin would be better off as well. The last thing the boy needed, if he wasn’t sure about his sexuality, was a horny, middle-aged professor buying him presents and dinner and tickets to see Mariah Carey.
He spent Sunday working on his manuscript and slept well again that night. But on Monday, the face that looked back at him from the mirror as he brushed his teeth seemed older somehow. The gray in his beard seemed more pronounced, even after his shower. And there were all these tiny lines around his eyes that he hadn’t noticed before.
He stared into those eyes for a long time, and then heard himself say aloud, “There is nothing about you a boy like Justin could possibly want or need.”
The reflection didn’t answer. But Richard thought he saw it nod in agreement.
His class that morning was his 200 level course on Sociolinguistics. He had a talented group of about fifteen students for the class, which was a healthy size, considering that it was a summer session. The lecture went well, but he kept seeing Justin’s face in the faces of the young people in the room. Most of the students were Freshmen and Sophomores, so no more than a year or two older than Justin. He could imagine the boy taking this course in the fall and thriving in it. If he only hadn’t been lying about his intentions for the past three months.
Such a waste, he thought. Here, Justin’s ability to pick up new languages would have made him a superstar. I hope he can shine as brightly at Dartmouth.
And for a moment, he actually wished the boy well. That sudden feeling was a salve to his bruised and battered conscience.
There were only five minutes left in class when the two police officers came in.
They entered quietly and respectfully, doing their best not to make a stir, and took two seats toward the back of the classroom. Richard tried to keep his composure as a knot of coldness spread from his stomach, up and into his shoulders. He stayed calm, but already visions of the end of his career were crashing into his head.
Oh, Justin, he agonized, what have you done? What have you said?
His hands shaking, Richard led the last few minutes of class discussion, and finally the hour was up. With perspiration on his brow, Richard dismissed the students, but stayed standing behind the podium as they filed out. As the last of the students filtered past the officers, looking at the man and the woman with mixtures of distrust and fear, they stood. The male officer quietly closed the door of the classroom, before they walked together up to Richard where he stood. His fingers gripped the side of the lectern too firmly, and he smiled as best he could.
“What can I do for you, officers?” he asked with a forced smile.
But looking in their eyes, he suddenly knew.
Perhaps it was how both officers had their hats off, and tucked under their arms, military style. It reminded Richard of the night that the police officers came to his house in the rainstorm, to tell his mother that his father had been killed in an accident at the work site in Park City. There is a certain drawn, sad, defeated look that a police officer has when they are there to tell you bad news.
They aren’t here to arrest me. They’re here to tell me that Justin is dead.
Looking back, he wondered if he hadn’t known it from the very moment that Justin slammed his door so hard that a pane of glass had cracked. Maybe he knew even earlier, when he encouraged the boy to take his summer class. Or when he became the boy’s confidant, and then later, his lover.
Perhaps he had known all along it had to end like this.
Richard’s knuckles were white on the lectern.
“Are you Professor Pratt?” The female officer asked. Richard’s knees grew weak, and he opened his mouth to answer her question. He didn’t think he could, but then he heard his voice, and it sounded surprisingly normal.
“Yes, I am. What is this about?”
The male officer stepped forward. “It’s about one of your students, Justin Kimball.”
“Justin? Is he all right?”
“No, sir. I’m afraid he’s not. He’s dead.”
Actually hearing the words was a relief to Richard. Not only because it confirmed what he knew but also that he could now allow his trembling to be seen. He hoped their news would look as if it took him by surprise.
“Oh, my god,” Richard said, and let the woman officer help him into a chair in the front row of the classroom. “Dead? How?”
“He was one of your students, we understand.”
“Yes. He’s the only student in my summer Sanskrit seminar. He’s brilliant. Was brilliant. How did he die?”
There was a beat while the two officers glanced at each other. Richard couldn’t tell if it was a glance of suspicion, or whether they were just deciding which one of them would deliver the details. Finally, the woman officer spoke, and the words sounded almost rehearsed.
“I’m sorry to tell you, sir, that Justin died Friday night in a car accident. His car went off the embankment at the bottom of Parley’s Canyon. He wasn’t found until Saturday morning.”
The woman stopped speaking, and when Richard looked up, it seemed as if they were waiting for him to say something. But Richard’s head was spinning, and he was having a hard time catching his breath.
Justin is dead. They think it was an accident.
He knew instantly that it was no accident, but he couldn’t yet tell if the cops knew that too.
As the silence dragged on, the officer, Willoughby, her name tag read, reached out and put a hand on Richard’s arm as if to steady him. Her touch broke something free in him, and he felt the tears run down his cheek. But they were silent tears.
“Would you like me to get you some water, Professor?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m just shocked and saddened. Justin was… a fine young man. And he had one of the most brilliant minds for languages that I have ever seen. It is just… such a waste. Such a sad thing.”
“Yes, it is,” said the other officer, whose name tag read Brossard. “I can see this is hard for you, sir. But we have some questions, if we may.”
“The accident has all the earmarks of a suicide. There was no obvious problem with the car. No skid marks on the road. Which makes it look like it was intentional. But there was also no suicide note, so we can’t be sure.”
The silence hung in the air between them once again, and Richard didn’t speak.
“Would you have reason to believe that Justin Kimball might commit suicide?” Officer Brossard asked.
Slowly Richard worked his tongue loose from the back of his teeth.
“It’s… possible. He was upset the last time we chatted. I think he was…” Richard’s fingers worked the end of his red silk tie, and he imagined it fraying under the stress. “I think he may have been prone to depression.”
The woman looked at her partner. “Yes, his father told us that. He’d been in therapy for several years, and had attempted suicide once before, when he was sixteen.”
The tension in Richard’s jaw released, and his mouth hung open in surprise. He looked up in wonder at the officers.
“I didn’t know that.”
Officer Brossard eased himself down into the chair at Richard’s left, and surprised him by placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Can you tell us how well you knew Justin? Can you characterize your relationship for us?”
It was the question he had been dreading. What if the officers knew more than they were saying? What if they had accessed the boy’s e-mail? The correspondence between them would be damning, to say the least. Did they suspect that Richard could have something to do with the boy’s suicide?
Richard shrugged his shoulders and tried to stay calm. I need to tell as much of the truth as I can, he thought.
“He meant a great deal to me. We spent a lot of time together. I think he saw me as…” Richard swallowed, knowing the next words would hurt to say. “…as a mentor, or maybe an older brother. Maybe even a father figure. He didn’t get along well with his own father.”
The officers looked back and forth at each other for a moment. In those glances Richard saw a glint of suspicion. But it was only a glint. If he was lucky, it would stay with the officers as no more than a nagging doubt, which they wouldn’t pursue.
If they had tougher questions, they obviously decided it wasn’t the time to ask them. Instead, they asked a few trivial ones. When was the last time you saw Justin? What was his state of mind? Did he ever threaten suicide in your hearing?
Richard answered all the questions as honestly as he could. Yes, he was with him the afternoon before he died. Yes, he seemed upset. No, him being upset wasn’t unusual. No, he never thought the boy was suicidal. No, he never threatened to take his own life.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Richard took their cards, and they took his. They told him it was possible that they would have more questions soon. Richard thanked them and asked about how Justin’s family was doing. They answered, but Richard could never remember what they said.
And then they were gone, and Richard stood alone in the empty classroom, trembling.
Most of the rest of that afternoon felt like a dream. He stumbled back to his office and cried harder, for about an hour, than he had ever cried in his life. He locked the door and didn’t answer when students knocked. At noon he called the department secretary to let her know he was ill and going home, and could she please cancel his 3:00 class? She said she hoped he would get some rest and feel better.
Rather than take the bus, Richard walked the twenty blocks back to his house. He thought perhaps the air would be good for him, and that the bustle of South Temple would drive the picture of Justin in that car out of his mind. But even as he walked, he kept imagining Justin’s beautiful face, broken and bloody and covered with shattered glass. He kept seeing his muscular body, the one that had been such an acclaimed athlete in high school, and had yielded so willingly under his touch, mangled beyond repair and bleeding out on the rocks.
I wonder if I’ll ever be able to sleep again, without the memory of Justin haunting me.
When Richard got to his house, he stopped at the mailbox before unlocking the door. And that was when he found it.
How he had not noticed it there all weekend was something he would later try to understand. And, in the years that followed, he would often wonder how different things might have been if he had. If he had only heard Justin there on the porch that Friday night, slipping the note into his mailbox, and rushed out to him… How much different everything might have been.
As he unfolded the note, Richard realized Justin must have written it in his car, and then dropped it in his mailbox, before speeding off.
Speeding off to his death.
Standing outside his locked door, Richard read the note. It was short. But it took the wind out of his lungs, and he sank down behind the porch railing, the house keys still in his hand. He was still there, reading and re-reading the note, when it got dark.
Richard. You were there for me when it suited you. You were there for me because you liked it when I fawned over you and told you how smart you were, and how much I admired you. But when I needed YOU, when I was hurting and just needed my friend, you turned your back on me.
You told me once you would take care of me. Why didn’t you?
P.S. Fuck you. And fuck anybody who loves you, ever again.
When it was dark, Richard unlocked the door and went into the house. He took the note and put it in a cereal bowl, and he took a match from the drawer. He took it all onto the back porch, where the moon was now shining through the branches of the trees.
Then he carefully burned the note.
He was still sitting there, the ashes in a bowl in his lap, when the sun came up the next morning.
He expected another knock on the door. He expected the police would soon arrive, their faces dark, and their thick hands bulging with pages of printed e-mails.
But that knock never came. And after several weeks, Richard accepted that it wouldn’t. Justin was obviously not important enough for the police to pursue digging through his e-mail. He was sure they were grateful that it could easily be written off as a suicide or an accident, and the case was closed. From what he knew of them, perhaps Justin’s family was grateful for that as well.
But for years Richard knew he was the real villain in the story of Justin Kimball’s life. He had taken a brilliant, beautiful young man and tried to own him.
He had broken him with his possessiveness, and his dark, corrupting needs.
I killed him, Richard thought.
I am the demon that brought him down.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.
Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.