Chapter 2.14 Interregnum
Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark
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2003 – 2016
The years after Justin’s death were dark ones for Richard Pratt.
Although the police never arrived at his door, their eyes full of anger and disgust, he couldn’t look in the mirror every morning without feeling those same emotions. What he had done to the boy who had trusted him felt like a stain on his soul that he could never wash away. His teaching suffered, especially in that first year, and it looked for a while like he might not achieve the tenure he had worked for so long and hard.
Every morning for months he cried in bed for an hour before finally prying himself out and beginning his day. Ten months after Justin’s death, he found he was still in such a deep and dark depression, that he knew he had to find a way back to the surface or it would likely kill him.
Counseling was out of the question. There was no way he could ever reveal the dark side of himself to a counselor. But what he could do was to begin re-engaging with the world. Perhaps he could even find a way to redeem himself for what he had done.
That summer he gave a lot of money to a gay youth group in the city, and he even tried volunteering with them for a time. But he soon found that his attraction to the handsome young men, many barely out of high school, made him wonder if his motivations were truly selfless. He didn’t believe that he’d ever act on those attractions again, but he couldn’t stop seeing Justin in all the hurt and needy young men that he encountered. And even as he tried to convince himself that he was not a predator, and of no danger to these young men, his attraction to them was a constant reminder that he was, at the very least, broken. And had been for many, many years.
Eventually, he learned from a friend of a place called the Utah Youth Crisis Line. There was no in-person component to their service, and in fact, they made it a policy that their counselors would never meet their callers. Their job, as the brochure informed him, was something called LBIR: “Listening, Brainstorming, Information, and Referral.”
It sounded perfect to Richard.
The Volunteer Coordinator for the hotline was a woman named, delightfully, Davida Wimsey. Davida was a young, femme, lesbian warrior, and she and Richard hit it off immediately. So much so, that even before he had finished the training, he was staying late to talk to her in private, and telling her his life story. And surprising even himself, he even opened up about Justin.
Davida listened intently, using all the active listening techniques on him that he was learning in her training sessions. And before he knew it, she had the entire story. And she looked at Richard as if he was a complex math problem she was trying to parse. There was no judgment in her eyes. But plenty of uncertainty.
“You know, Richard,” she said, leaning over the old steel desk in her tiny office. “Most people think that having lost someone to suicide is an advantage to working on a crisis hotline. That it will make you more sensitive and insightful in this work. But I’d like to be honest with you.”
“Please do,” Richard said. He crossed his arms over his chest and waited, doing his best not to let his guard come up and derail the conversation.
“The truth is, that more often than not, someone who has lost someone to suicide—especially as recently as you lost Justin—has a hard time working here. Rather than making you receptive, it’s much more likely to lead you to engage inappropriately with the callers. I hear how much you feel you failed Justin. And I just don’t want you to come here thinking that the Crisis Line is a path toward redemption, or even healing, for that loss. It certainly isn’t going to ease your conscience for the mistakes you made.”
Richard sighed, and his hands fell to his lap. He felt his shoulders slump a little, as he tried to find the right words to say.
“I’d be less than honest if I said that hadn’t crossed my mind, Davida.” Richard said, realizing even as he spoke that he was preparing to lie to the woman, and that she could probably tell. “But I’m not here for my own therapy. I believe I can keep the callers front and center, and help them problem-solve and find their own way back.”
Even as he said it, he knew he was just parroting Davida’s own words back at her from the training sessions.
Over the next twenty minutes Richard did his best to convince the woman that he had his shit together, and that he could be an asset to their work. And he must have convinced her more effectively than he convinced himself, because a month later, he found himself taking his first calls on the Youth Crisis Line.
And for the first few weeks, everything went extremely well. Until the day he got a call from Miss Little Voice.
MLV was a repeat caller, who had earned her moniker because of the weak, child-like quality to her voice. Although she claimed to be sixteen, she sounded a decade younger, at least. Her story was that she had been on the street since she was ten, and that in those years she had been handed about and shared by a gang of street kids. She’d been used as a sexual plaything by the boys and kept more like a pet than a human being. Her story was heart-wrenching and terrifying.
But the consensus of the staff was that it also wasn’t true.
Unfortunately, many of the callers to Crisis Line were pranks. They were often bored kids, trying to yank the chain of some hapless counselor, and it was a constant source of stress for the staff to determine who was real and who wasn’t. The policy was to treat them all as real, even if you were privately sure that they were peddling a pack of bullshit. Especially since someone who would make up a story so complicated probably had other issues that they might eventually reveal.
But few callers shoveled quite so much bullshit as Miss Little Voice. At least, according to the other counselors.
Still, Richard had believed the girl, and she must have sensed it, as she called him on his shift regularly. And even as he realized he was losing his perspective around this strange little girl, he couldn’t help himself. She seemed so needy, so broken, and so in need of help, that he wanted nothing more than to find her and become her protector. Part of him imagined the unconditional love she would shower on him for being her savior.
Unfortunately, one of the other counselors overheard one of Richard’s calls, and although they couldn’t put their finger on why it made them uncomfortable, it clearly had. The woman reported it to Davida, who (unbeknown to Richard) had then listened in on the latter half of the call.
Richard didn’t know what he’d said, or what about the way he’d spoken to the little girl, was so inappropriate. But it was enough for Davida to interrupt the call and pass it unceremoniously to another volunteer.
As Richard stared at the dead phone, he heard Davida’s voice at the door of his cubicle. “Richard, we need to talk.” Mutely, he followed her into her office.
Needless to say, that conversation didn’t go well. About all Richard remembered telling Davida was that the whole damn Youth Crisis Line was a joke, and that they weren’t helping anybody. That just talking on a phone call was a waste of everybody’s time, and that if there was any hope of ever helping someone like Miss Little Voice, then “somebody had better get in their fucking car and go find her!”
Davida responded as Richard knew she would, although his brain did its best to tune her out. She said that it was common for counselors to get overly involved or attached to specific callers, and it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. But it meant that being on the staff of Crisis Line wasn’t for him. At least not at this point in his life.
The sound her door made when he slammed it on the way out reminded Richard of the sound his own door had made, the day that Justin left.
Another case of losing my temper, and walking away when someone needed me, Richard thought.
In the park across the street, Richard couldn’t stop thinking about Miss Little Voice. He felt like he had come so close. That if he had been able to actually meet her, to talk to her face to face, he might have been able to save her. And if he had saved her, he might have left with some hope of saving his own soul.
The incident only reinforced Richard’s belief that he was incapable of truly helping anyone but himself. He couldn’t help Justin, and he couldn’t help a complete stranger.
It would be best for everyone if I never become emotionally intimate with anyone. Ever again.
The anniversary of Justin’s death later that summer was definitely Richard’s low point. But through the fall, with his focus back on his work and his teaching, he slowly climbed out of the emotional cesspool in which he had been wallowing for a full year. It took several more years, but eventually, he even dated again. His bed partners were still at least a decade younger than him. But at least they were no longer barely out of high school.
It was over eight years after Justin’s death that Richard finally met Keith, while on that ski trip to Park City. By then, he felt he had conquered most, if not all, of his demons, and his life was finally getting back on track. But it had been a dark eight years, and he felt it had left him wounded. In that time, he hadn’t had a serious relationship of any kind. So falling in love with Keith was both thrilling and terrifying.
Over the decade they were together, Keith helped Richard to find himself again, and showed him that loving someone was safe. Richard knew that even to Keith, he was still frequently unwilling to open up and fully commit. But once he had confided to him everything about Justin, and about the dark tunnel he had gone through in the years after, he truly felt that someone finally understood. After a year or two he became convinced that Keith was in it with him for the long haul, and he’d help Richard find his way.
Instead of being the savior Richard had always pictured himself to be, for the first time he allowed himself to be the one that was saved. He didn’t think that anyone but Keith could ever have accomplished such a monumental task.
And Keith would never truly know how responsible he was for saving Richard’s soul from the dark road it was on.
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.