June 12, 10:00 am
Are you really strong enough to turn me away, when you know Keith can be back in your arms tonight?
It had taken Richard hours to quiet the trembling and push the picture of the naked and withered old man out of his mind. Even by the next morning, if he closed his eyes, he could feel the frail neck in his hands as he held the flailing figure under the roiling waters of the hot tub. He could still feel the pure and malign hatred that was the very substance of the thing.
But he had no illusion that he had really killed the creature. Or even seriously hurt him. The entire scene in the hot tub had played out in Richard’s mind, and if anything, it had all played out exactly as the Wanderer had intended. He had assessed Richard’s strengths and weakness and found his breaking point.
Richard had easily and quickly made his way back to Keith after leaving Nordstrom’s. But being with him through the night had not quelled the anxiety that the Wanderer had left in him. It was like a slowly acting poison.
I know you’ve been thinking about it, the creature had said. I bet you’ve even found the right person to possess. It would be so easy!
Richard looked at Pil, knowing that the Wanderer was right. He had been thinking about it, and he knew just the person. And it might be the only way that he could save Keith from what seemed the inevitable fate of this doomed city.
You will spend an eternity trying to learn how to do it on your own. And Keith doesn’t have an eternity. His days, like everyone in this valley, are numbered.
As much as he dreaded it, Richard was also grateful that today was the day of his funeral. If he had to spend the day sitting next to Keith in that dark and dreary house, dreading what was to come, he would likely lose his mind. At least this way, they could both get out into the sunshine.
Keith looked incredibly handsome in his new suit. The tie they had chosen was a simple beige that contrasted well with the dark suit coat and blue shirt. There were robin’s egg flecks in the tie that offset the shirt beautifully.
In the end, Keith had decided against a traditional funeral service at the Mormon ward house. Neither of them were particularly religious, despite their Mormon upbringings, and Richard was relieved that he wouldn’t have to listen to some Bishop he didn’t even know give canned platitudes about his life. The Funeral Director, Mr. Ingalls, had been the one to suggest that they just hold a simple graveside service.
Although he had been cremated, Richard’s will stated that he wanted to have half of his ashes buried between the graves of his parents, in the Salt Lake City Cemetery, close to their home in the Avenues. Richard didn’t even remember when or why he had written that clause into the will, but he was grateful for the other clause: half of his ashes would remain with Keith, to do with as he chose.
In the cemetery, he closed his eyes and sighed, turning his face up to catch the wind. It couldn’t have been a lovelier day. There was a gentle breeze blowing down from the foothills to the north, and Richard watched it stir Keith’s hair as he stood apart from Michelle and Pil. The big Hawaiian man was to Richard’s right, and his curly black hair was shiny in the sun. Both he and Michelle were giving Keith some space, so he could greet and receive condolences from the guests who were just arriving, usually in groups of two or three. As they arrived, they invariably made their way to Keith to offer their condolences.
Some of the earliest to arrive were the bears—their friends from a decade immersed in that community. Neither he nor Keith hung out in the gay bars, but there was a healthy circuit of bear house parties and dinners they frequented. They were all big, goofy guys that loved to party and drink and laugh, it and was strange to see them looking so somber.
And I have never seen any of them dressed so nice, he thought with a laugh. There wasn’t a flannel shirt or leather jacket in the crowd. Like Keith, they all cleaned up pretty well, although a few of them looked like apes stuffed into suits that no longer fit.
Bears were notorious huggers, and as they arrived, they lined up to take their turns enfolding Keith in their arms. Without fail, each one held him for a very long time. The rest of them waited their turn, but Richard noticed more than one glancing shyly or flirtatiously at Pil.
The horny bitches.
I bet you’ve even found the right person to possess, the old man had said. It would be so easy! Let me show you how. Let me give Keith back to you. Let me give you back to Keith…
He didn’t want to keep thinking about possessing Pil. But he couldn’t stop himself.
Billy begged me not to do it. He even called possession “the Forbidden Fourth Gift,” whatever that means. But if I could use that gift to save Keith, don’t I have an obligation to try? If I were in control of Pil, at the very least I could put Keith into their big yellow SUV, and head for Wyoming or Nevada. It would be so easy…
Richard allowed himself to become mesmerized by the big bearded men who would enfold Keith in their arms, sometimes two or three men at a time. It was a very kind, very gentle ballet, and as Richard watched, he felt a deep well of gratitude growing for the friends they had shared. He wished he had appreciated them more when he was alive.
When the service was finally getting ready to begin, there were about fifty or sixty people gathered around the gravesite. Other than the bears, there were some of Keith’s colleagues from the Library who were especially close to him, and even a few colleagues of his own from the Linguistics department, including the Chair. He even spotted a few current students in an uncomfortable knot by themselves. But as he gazed across the crowd, he realized that by far more people were here because they were close to Keith, than because they were close to him. Realizing that made him feel somewhat forlorn.
The bears all hung together in a pack of about thirty, off to the left, in an incestuous clump. Richard found a spot next to their friends Joey and Rob, who held hands and looked far more sad about his passing than he ever would have expected.
Likely, they’re sad for Keith, and not for me, Richard thought. And immediately disliked the taste that thought left in his mind. But it was also likely true. He had been aware for years that most of their friends, even among the bears, were really Keith’s friends. He hadn’t been antisocial, but he had never valued the bear scene the way that Keith did. He was sure the reason most of them were here was to support Keith, and not because they had really cared much at all for him.
Trying to force such dismal thoughts from his mind, Richard milled around with the guests, the only one under-dressed for the occasion. He hoped to overhear some juicy gossip about himself, but the crowd was subdued, and whenever he stopped to listen, the conversation seemed dry and uninteresting.
Eventually he found that the best place to be, out of the milling of the crowd, was to sit on his mother’s headstone, with his feet on her grave. She had always told him it was taboo to step on a grave, but he thought he could get away with it, since he wasn’t really there.
A small hole had been dug deeply between the graves of his parents, and the oak and cherry wood box that contained his ashes was on a small table draped with a rainbow flag and a bear flag. Next to the box were two matched vases that Richard didn’t recognize. Keith had cut a half dozen roses from their garden that morning, and Michelle had arranged them beautifully on the makeshift altar. It was all lovely.
Mr. Ingalls from the funeral home was orchestrating everything, and he kept checking in with Michelle as the crowd continued to gather. It was clear that she had made most of these arrangements behind the scenes.
This is painful, Richard thought. I have always hated funerals. And my own doesn’t look like it will be an exception.
Finally, Mr. Ingalls asked everyone to gather close, while he made some remarks. As Richard had predicted, he began by saying, “I didn’t know Richard Pratt, but what I have learned about him from his family has shown me what a loving, caring man he must have been…” The rest of his words settled into a drone, and Richard let his gaze wander around the crowd.
He had not noted it before, but there were several ghosts scattered among the mourners. There was a middle-aged man who looked like he must have been a stockbroker or a banker. Richard hadn’t noticed him at first because he looked like so many of his bear friends. He was round and looked as if he must have been jovial when he was still alive. But now he just stood and stared, as if he was respectfully listening to the funeral remarks.
Across the hillside, he saw several more ghosts approaching the service, as if they were coming to check out all the commotion. They walked slowly and deliberately. A couple were naked, one had a sheet, and others looked so much like the other mourners it would have been hard to distinguish them. They didn’t stumble in like zombies, despite their appearances. They just walked calmly until they reached the funeral party, and then blended into the crowd.
It was then that he saw a ghost he actually recognized.
The old woman from the funeral home was coming, walking slowly across the grass, being careful to keep her step between the graves and the headstones. But unlike the other ghosts who were converging, she stopped at a distance, standing behind a tall stone monument. And unlike all the other ghosts, Richard actually had the sense that she was watching not only the service but him as well. Other than her, none of the other ghosts paid him any mind at all.
So, I guess cemeteries are like libraries. A gathering place for the dead.
The idea didn’t surprise him. Of course the dead would haunt graveyards. Isn’t that what all the legends said?
Richard tried to tune back in to the Funeral Director’s remarks, but his voice was still just a drone, and he couldn’t work up enough interest to even try to listen to what he was saying.
It suddenly occurred to him he had seen none of his blood relatives among the mourners. He didn’t have many, but he would have thought that at least a distant uncle or cousin might have made an appearance. He scanned the crowd once again, and that was when he spotted Nick. His brother had arrived silently and was now just quietly observing the service from the back.
Like Richard himself, Nick had always been a bit of a loner, and the two of them had drifted apart since their mother had died. He hadn’t seen him in years, and it surprised Richard that the man would have flown in from Vermont, just to attend the service. Richard noted his wife wasn’t with him, which was telling. He expected his brother wasn’t even staying overnight. He probably arrived this morning, and would be on a plane out this afternoon. Nick had little use for Salt Lake City, or for memories of his old life here.
Richard watched as Michelle reached down and took Keith’s right hand. Pil sensed it as well, and he took Keith’s left. Even from where he sat, Richard could see Keith’s hand, as it disappeared so easily inside Pil’s thick fingers. He watched as Keith leaned into the big man’s shoulder. It was a subtle movement that nobody would have noticed if they had not been watching for it.
If I were in Pil right now, I could bring up a hand to touch Keith’s face. I could brush away his tears and actually feel them. I could kiss his face and taste his tears on my lips…
He felt such longing for Keith that it scared him. He sensed his own resolve faltering, and in that moment, the idea that eventually he would have to possess Pil Kilani seemed like a certainty.
Let me give Keith back to you, the Wanderer had said. Let me give you back to Keith. You will spend an eternity trying to learn how to do it on your own.
Somehow, Richard knew that was a lie. He could do it. He didn’t need the old man’s help. Just watch me, you bastard, Richard thought.
The sound of his lover’s name broke Richard’s reverie.
“Keith, would you like to say a few words about Richard?” Mr. Ingalls asked. With a gesture of his hand, the little man stepped aside, and Keith stepped forward, and turned to face the mourners. The look on his face made Richard realize he was still carrying a great weight of grief.
Keith started slowly, and the anxiety and stress were clear on his face. But soon, his eyes clouded, and the words came more easily.
“Thank you, Mr. Ingalls,” Keith started, and then cleared his throat and looked down at the makeshift altar before continuing.
“I told Michelle that I wanted to say a few words here today. But it’s ending up being tougher than I expected. And it’s not the standing up here in front of a crowd that is the tough part, even though I have never been particularly at ease in front of a crowd. It’s because I know no words can ever do justice to my… to Richard’s memory. Nothing I say here today will be adequate to remember him, because Richard Pratt, my friend, my lover, my husband, and my partner of more than a decade, was truly one of the most sacred souls I have ever known.”
Richard felt himself slide off the headstone and sink onto the hard grass underneath. The look on Keith’s face was so luminous, and the words he was speaking were so powerful, that Richard felt totally dwarfed and unworthy of them.
“What words could I possibly say that would honor a life so generously lived, that would do justice to the deeply kind and loving soul that burned so brightly next to me for a decade? All words feel so inadequate. So much so, that it is tempting to just honor Richard in awed and reverent silence.”
Keith glanced at a small card he was carrying, as he gathered his thoughts.
“And before I say more: I know it’s easy and somewhat disingenuous to idolize the dead at their funeral; to portray them as superhuman, or as less flawed than they really were. We are all flawed. And Richard was…” Keith’s voice failed for a moment, and he looked down at his notes for a few seconds before continuing.
“And Richard, like all of us, had his darker side. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that none of us is just one person. We are a different person to everyone we meet. And I know if I were to walk around this gathering and ask all of you what you thought of Richard…” Keith smiled. “And if you were to be truly honest… What I’d hear would be descriptions of not one Richard Pratt. But several. I’m sure I’d hear about Richard, the dedicated University Professor. And Richard, the brilliant linguist. And Richard, the guy that got so funny when he had a drink or two in him. But if you were honest, I’d also hear at least a few of you use words like ‘difficult’ or even ‘arrogant.’”
Richard looked around the gathering, and he saw a few people looking uncomfortable. As well as several that shared knowing glances with each other, and even some embarrassed smiles.
“Everyone who knew Richard knew that as the years went by, he became a bit more of a recluse. I’ve always been somewhat shy, and when I met Richard he was the outgoing one, and he had to drag me to parties. But in more recent years, that changed, as Richard grew more introspective, more private. We hardly went out at all the last couple years. And I want to say I’m sorry to all our friends here for that. Especially the bears, who probably wondered what happened to us.” Keith’s eyes were shining, but there were no tears on his face. “The truth is, for the past few years, I think Richard would have been content to just let the two of us grow old together, in our little house. Even his teaching, which once meant so much to him, had seemed less important than it once was.”
Was that true? I hadn’t noticed, Richard thought.
“I understand Richard was sometimes a tough nut to crack. And that many of you never understood him.” He glanced knowingly at Michelle. “And in a lot of cases, I don’t think you even understood what I saw in him. Why I was so deeply in love with the man that many of you thought could be a bit of a prick.”
One bear let out a guffaw that broke the tension, and a light murmur rumbled gently through the crowd.
“That’s okay. Really, it is. Every relationship is a mystery. It’s a mystery to those in it, so it must be an even more unfathomable mystery to those that are watching it from the outside. And that’s because love is…” Keith’s voice cracked for the first time, and Richard couldn’t help himself. He stumbled to his feet and made his way to his lover. He needed to touch him. Even if that meant that he would feel nothing more than a cold and lifeless mannequin. And even if it meant that Keith would look through him as if he was only empty air.
“Love is something that we can’t pretend to understand. I’m convinced that love is not of this world. That it’s a gift to us from the other side.”
Richard put his forehead against Keith’s, and locked his fingers behind the man’s slightly inclined neck. He felt his own tears coming, and he felt a love for this man that was far beyond anything he had known, even when he was living. It truly felt like a force far outside of himself.
“Richard was never a spiritual man. We didn’t talk of it often, but I think he would have defined himself as an atheist. We did talk of death, though. And he once told me he believed that this life was all there was. That after death, there would be nothing waiting. He said that he suspected the end was like the flipping of a light switch. That you could be there one minute, and then not be there the next. And that was just the way of the world.
“I respect Richard’s thoughts on that, but I have a bit of a different view.” Keith raised his head, and Richard could feel him looking through his transparent eyes, and into the eyes of the crowd behind him. “I have a strong faith that there is a world beyond this one. I don’t know if it resembles the heaven that the religious people talk about. But I believe there must be something. And I will tell you this. If such a place exists, Richard Pratt will find his way there.”
Memories of the Void crashed back on Richard.
“I don’t know, Baby Bear,” Richard said to his lover, as he tried fruitlessly to kiss away the tears on his face. “I wish I could promise to be waiting for you on the other side. But I still don’t think there is another side. I really don’t.”
As if he had heard Richard, Keith continued. “And I know it sounds trite to say your lost loved ones will be waiting for you on the other side. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But what I do know is that my mind and my heart are full of memories of Richard, that I’ll hold on to like precious jewels. And when I get to the other side, if Richard isn’t there waiting for me, that will be okay. Because I will have brought him with me.”
Thirty minutes later, the service had ended. A colleague from the University had said a few words, but after what Keith had said, they all seemed superficial and meaningless. As things were winding down, a couple of their friends had told some stories about Keith and Richard, and the mood had lightened immensely. Keith had filled a small metal urn with half the ashes from the box. Mr. Ingalls had sealed it somehow, and then Keith dropped it down the hole that had been dug between the graves of his parents.
Shortly after, people drifted away. But the funeral had ended on a very upbeat note, and most of the people who stopped to hug Keith on the way out were smiling through any tears they still had left to shed.
Richard felt numb. What Keith had said had touched him deeply, but he felt mostly frustrated because there was so much he wanted to say to Keith in response. He could imagine them having one of their late-night conversations, lying in bed, and unraveling all the mysteries of life and death. But it was a conversation he knew they would never have, despite Keith’s faith that there was a world waiting for him on the other side.
Let me give him back to you, the old man had said.
Richard stood up. He blended into the remnants of the crowd, trying to banish the voice in his head.
Richard’s brother Nick was chatting with Michelle and Keith. Richard stood with them, listening in to their conversation. Keith had only met his brother once, and there wasn’t a lot that Nick could say to Keith except for offering his condolences. But afterward, Michelle took his brother by the elbow and walked with him back to his car. Richard walked with them.
“Thanks for spending so much time on the phone with me, Michelle. I’m glad you convinced me to come back. I don’t know if it helped Keith, but I think it was the right thing to do.”
“I know you and Richard weren’t close,” Michelle said. “But you’d be surprised. He talked about you quite a lot. He seemed pretty proud of his big brother.”
Was that true? Have I ever even mentioned Nick to Michelle and Pil? Richard truly couldn’t remember.
The pair made small talk for a few minutes, and Nick confirmed he had a 6:00 flight back to Vermont. He gave Michelle a long hug, thanked her again, and then took out the keys for his rental car.
“Keep me informed what happens. Especially around the police investigation,” Nick said, as he walked away.
I wonder if this service was mostly for my brother alone, Richard thought. Well, for my brother, and for Keith…
Richard walked with his brother to his car, and as he was unlocking it, he briefly placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. But of course, Nick didn’t notice, and he slid in behind the wheel of his car.
He’s on his way to the airport, Richard thought. And when he leaves, I’ll never see him again.
Part of Richard wanted to follow. To at least see him to the airport. And who knows, maybe even get on that plane with him, and then see what happened. But he didn’t, and he just stood by the side of the road as his brother drove away.
As Richard was walking back with Michelle to what remained of the funeral, a matronly woman he didn’t recognize stepped out from the crowd and gently grasped Michelle’s elbow.
“Oh, Detective Grayson,” Michelle said. “I’m so glad you are here. Thank you for coming.”
Detective? Richard thought.
“I wouldn’t have missed it. I wanted to see how both you and Keith are doing.”
Michelle smiled at the woman. “We’re doing well, I think. Keith especially. He’s been better these past few days. It is like he found some reserve of inner strength, kind of out of the blue. I first noticed it about a day after the hearing. It really surprised me, but I’m very proud of him.”
“What he had to say about Richard was touching,” the Detective said.
Michelle let out a little laugh, before looking to make sure that nobody else was in earshot. “Touching and true, Detective. None of us really understood Richard.”
“But they clearly loved each other very much.”
“Yes, they did. That part, we certainly knew.”
Richard could tell that the woman was about ready to wish Michelle well and depart. But Michelle instead stepped closer.
“Carla, is there anything you can tell me about what happened at that hearing? It was such a shock, and none of us really seem to understand it. Do you know why Howard Gunderson snapped like that? Have you learned anything more since?”
Howard Gunderson, Richard thought. Strange how little I have thought about him in all this. How confusing it must be for him, to have been invaded that way. To be used that way.
Without even realizing why, he looked at Pil, who was laughing with Joey and Rob near the altar.
“I’m afraid there isn’t any more I can tell you, Michelle. After the incident, he was put on lockdown. I haven’t been able to see him since, although I’m working with his court-appointed attorney. I hope I can tell you more at some point.”
“I hesitate to mention this, because I don’t want to open a big can of worms about it. But Keith is convinced that Gunderson was trying to kill him. He said he had a ball-point pen, and that he was sure the boy was lunging at him.”
Grayson looked dumbfounded for a moment and then smiled. “I think that’s just Keith’s imagination. What happened to Gunderson had to be some kind of psychotic break, and he just lashed out at random. I don’t think he saw or targeted Keith.”
Michelle sighed. “That’s what we’re trying to tell Keith. But he seems pretty convinced.”
“I guess it’s just another one of those things. You’ll just have to give him time.”
“I suppose so.” Michelle glanced at Keith, who was talking to a few bears who were lingering by the gravesite. “What happens now?”
“Well, they’ve rescheduled the botched hearing for the day after tomorrow.”
Michelle visibly shuddered. “I don’t think I’ll even tell Keith. I think he’s had enough of Howard Gunderson.”
The detective sighed and agreed, and the two women drifted off together. And Richard tried again to picture Howard Gunderson’s face. He realized that after the incident at the hearing, he’d stopped thinking of the boy as even being a person. Since then, he’d only thought of him as the vehicle Justin had used—like he was an empty shell, or a suit of clothes that Justin slipped on.
The way I could slip on Pil’s skin…
But Howard must have his own story. And he was as much a victim of what was happening as Richard. As much as Keith. Was he even aware of Justin’s possession? Did he have any idea what had happened to him? Whether or not he did, the panic must be overwhelming.
The hand on his shoulder was so unexpected that he almost jumped out of his skin.
Billy Travers stood behind him, looking relieved.
Richard wasn’t surprised, and knew he should be grateful for the boy’s return. After his visit by the Wanderer, he knew they had so much to talk about. But he felt tired and unprepared for the conversation. So he just stared at the boy for what could have been a full minute. And then, with a sigh, he slumped down against a headstone.
Seeming to sense his mental and emotional exhaustion, Billy didn’t speak either. He just sat down next to Richard, and together they listened to the distant conversations of the funeral party. It was down to just about fifteen people now, and Richard was amused to see that it was mostly the closest of their bear friends that remained. They all knew each other so well, and had spent so much time together, that their conversations now seemed light and easy, despite the sad occasion.
He noted Keith was watching Pil, who was actually yucking it up with the bears. He wondered if Pil could see the stars in the eyes of some of them, as they looked at the big man.
Typical, Richard thought. But he was amused more than annoyed at his friends. Bears will be bears.
Billy and Richard just sat for several minutes, and Richard was reminded of a term they had used on the hotline. “Companionable Silence,” Davida had called it. When a caller didn’t know what to say, it was natural for the counselor to fill that gap, or try to get them talking. But sometimes it was best to just sit with them in silence, trusting that when they were ready, they would be the one to speak.
Richard turned to face Billy. “I don’t suppose you were ever a volunteer on a crisis line,” he said.
Billy turned his head to look at Richard in confusion, and he looked so much like their late dog Kubrick in that moment that Richard had to laugh.
“Never mind,” he said.
The old woman ghost had drawn closer now, and she appeared to be trying to comfort Keith and Pil, much like she did in the funeral home. She stood next to them, as the two men looked down at the box that still contained half of his ashes. But now she didn’t seem aware of Richard’s presence at all. Maybe he had imagined that all along.
Now that she was in the sunlight, Richard could see that there were bloodstains on the front of her brown dress. Several thick patches, as if she had been stabbed or shot. It had been too dark to notice it in the funeral home, but in the sunlight it was clear. He could only imagine that she had died, like so many other Native Americans of the nineteenth century, in some horrific and bloody way.
Richard pointed at her, and at a couple other ghosts who were still lingering around the area. “So, it appears that ghosts like cemeteries, almost as much as they like libraries.”
Billy followed Richard’s gaze and removed his hat. He ran his fingers through his sandy hair.
“More so, actually. Lots of us seem to gravitate to the places of the dead. Funeral Homes. Morgues. Cemeteries. And not necessarily the ones where they died, or were buried. I think it is just that the dead are more comfortable in such places.” He put the hat back on his head. “Especially the mad ones. Their ghostly bodies seem to know that they are dead, and so they come to places like this. You’ll even find them in museums from time to time, as if the artifacts of the dead are calling to them.”
“What are they hoping to find here, do you think?”
“I’m not sure they’re trying to find anything. Perhaps the one thing all ghosts have in common is the desire to complete their journey. This might just seem like the way out.”
Richard looked at the boy in disgust. “Really? You think that’s what they want? They want a way out? Well, fuck that. It isn’t what I want. What I want is a way back.”
Billy was silent for a moment. “I heard what Keith said in his remarks. He, at least, seems to want there to be a place and a time when you can reunite.”
“I don’t know, Billy. That whole idea of heaven just pisses me off.”
“And why is that?”
“This idea that there is a reward after death seems like a betrayal of life. Like we get this big reward for finally kicking it. All our friends are there, waiting to throw us some big party. What’s the point of even living, if that’s the case?”
“Life doesn’t have to go on forever for it to have meaning, Richard,” Billy said. He was rubbing the toes of his bare foot across the sharp spines of the grass, and it seemed as if he was enjoying the sensation.
“Yeah, well, fuck that. And fuck all these graves, and all this death. If I have to get dragged into the grave, you can be damn sure I’ll be pulling a couple good handfuls of clover with me on the way down.”
Billy just smiled. “But Richard, what if there is a world beyond this one? What if Keith is waiting for you there, when you finally find your way to it?”
“He won’t be. And I won’t.”
“Are those the graves of your parents?” Billy asked, gesturing beyond the altar.
“Yes, and they won’t be waiting either.”
“How did they die?”
“My father died in an accident when I was little. My mother died of cancer when I was in College. I tried to rush home in time, but I think she was so far gone that she didn’t recognize me when I got here. She held my hand, but I think she believed I was my father. Or maybe my grandfather. I don’t know. But there wasn’t any recognition in her eyes.”
“So you never really got a chance to say goodbye. To either of them.”
“No. I suppose not.”
“Sounds like unfinished business to me. I’m surprised you don’t want there to be a heaven, just for that reason alone.”
“I didn’t say that I didn’t want to believe in heaven. I just said that I don’t.”
Billy seemed thoughtful, and when he finally spoke, Richard wasn’t sure if he was speaking to him, or just to himself.
“When the ones we love die, there is an unmooring. Without them, we are adrift. Love is an anchor, and it keeps us from floating away. Without the ones we love, we’re lost, like a child’s balloon, forgotten after a party.” He turned to Richard, and his eyes seemed far older than the rest of him. “When Frances and her family died, that fragile string snapped for me. And I just drifted for many years, untethered. I watched that balloon disappear, as if I saw it only through a hazy telescope. It took me a long time to find myself again afterward.” Billy sighed. “Give yourself time, Richard. You’ll find your mooring.”
Richard leaned his head back against the headstone and closed his eyes. “Billy, I just can’t stop thinking about how it would feel to hold him, to touch his face. I am disgusted with myself that I never truly appreciated him in life, but in death, he is all I can think about. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t give to touch Keith again. To really touch him, I mean. Not this stone thing I touch now. But his real flesh. His real hands. His real lips.” Richard’s head fell back against the stone. “His real eyes to see me.”
“I understand, Richard. It may have been more than a century and a half. But I remember touch. I remember life.” Billy leaned forward and turned to face Richard squarely. He crossed his legs under him in an easy lotus position that seemed odd on his young, gangly frame.
“Richard, do you remember what it was like to be fifteen?”
Richard smiled a little. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, I died when I was fifteen. Part of my mind is still fifteen years old, and no matter what I do, the feelings I had in 1857 will always be with me.”
“What feelings?” Richard asked, although he thought he knew.
“Well, when I died I was just a very lost, frightened, and lonely boy. And I was stuck in a hormonal stage of adolescent sexual development. If you remember being fifteen, then you remember what that was like.”
Richard couldn’t help but laugh at the boy’s serious expression. “I certainly do. You’re telling me you wanted to fuck pretty much everything.”
“I certainly did. And I was in love with the girl that embodied all of that lust and desire for me. Imagine having your sexuality just flowering into full and glorious bloom, and then suddenly finding yourself stuck forever in that, with no ability to act upon it. As much as we like to romanticize it, it was as close to hell as you can imagine.”
“What did you do?”
“I had to learn to channel that urge, which could not be satisfied, into spiritual growth. My body could do all the things it did before. I discovered I could masturbate and ejaculate…”
“Yeah, I’ve figured that out too,” Richard said, his voice dark and sad, and feeling embarrassed to make such an admission in front of what still looked like a fifteen-year-old boy.
“I figured you probably had. What you’ll learn soon is that it doesn’t help. All it did for me was simply sharpen and aggravate my desire for a woman. Oh, I would touch them, and I would find naked women I could look at. It’s easy when you’re a ghost. But I found no satisfaction in it. Their bodies weren’t really there for me. They were just shapes of stone and trying to touch them only increased my frustration.
“So you stopped.”
“Yes, I stopped. It became pointless. And for a time, I thought I was damned.”
The old woman was holding Keith now. He was talking to Michelle, and she had both his hands. But the old woman still leaned into the chubby man, and her bony hands held his shoulders, as if she was comforting him. Her face was turned to Richard and Billy now, but he couldn’t tell if she was looking at them.
“But what if it were possible?” Richard asked. “What if there was a way?”
“Possession,” Billy said simply, with a great weight of sadness in his voice.
Richard shrugged. “Yes. Possession. If there is a handful of clover left to me… A little bit of life I can drag with me into the grave. What if that is it? What if that is all that I have left?”
Billy didn’t speak for the longest time. When he did, his voice was barely above a whisper.
“The Wanderer has contacted you, hasn’t he?”
“Maybe,” Richard said, and even to his ears, his voice sounded like that of a petulant child.
“And he’s promised you Keith. He’s promised to teach you how to possess.”
“Or maybe I don’t even need him to do that.” Richard said, hearing the aggression and fierceness in his own voice.
After a long pause, Billy finally spoke again.
“Physical love is for the living, Richard.”
Richard smirked at the boy. “And what about spiritual love?”
Billy was struggling to find the right words. Finally, he just sighed and said, “I suppose that kind of love is eternal. As you know. Not even death can stop us from loving who we love.”
“Like the way you loved Frances?”
“Yes. And the way I have come to love Mattie as well.”
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.