June 12, 1:17 pm
“I know now that my obsession with Mattie served my needs more than hers,” Billy said, as they leaned against the headstone. “And that any love I had for her when I was alive became buried in that obsession. I came to believe that she was my responsibility, and would be, forever. After almost thirty years, I still couldn’t see her. But I sensed her presence, and even when I didn’t follow her, it was as if part of me was always near her, always thinking of her. We couldn’t see or hear each other, but our bond never wavered.”
As Billy talked, Richard watched the remnants of the mourners dispersing. Keith was chatting with Joey and Rob, the last two that still lingered with him by the graveside. Michelle and Pil were helping Mr. Ingalls fold up the cloth and take down the altar.
“Why do you think she subjected herself to that agony? Over and over again?” Richard asked, trying to picture the little girl he had seen at the park, and again at the theater.
“I suppose it’s like mortification of the flesh. The way religious penitents flog themselves to rid the body of sin. The agony answered some deep need in her. Enough so that she became addicted, and couldn’t stop, no matter how many times she went through it, and no matter how many times I would rush back to the burned out cabin. In fact, as strange as it may sound, those moments of her agony after the resets were some of the few moments when I actually felt that Mattie’s soul was truly at peace.”
“Perhaps the pain was what she needed to feel in order to think of herself as real. To bring her closer to God,” Richard suggested.
“Perhaps,” Billy said. “But it wasn’t really the mortification of the flesh, as much as the mortification of the soul. Our bodies are long gone.”
Richard backhanded the boy’s shoulder. Hard enough to cause Billy to recoil, and his own hand to ache.
“Okay, point taken,” Billy said, rubbing his arm. “What I mean is, I think our bodies are just shadows now. They’re not real to the living world, and perhaps just an illusion, even to us.” He looked exhausted as he continued. “Richard, I think all we are now are… bundles of feelings. Nothing but emotions, needs, and memories of what we’ve lost. I’ve concluded that we are not substantial, even in this, our own world. That the fact we think we are is the true illusion.”
That struck Richard as terrifying, but there was also something in it that sounded right. It was very Zen. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re just so used to operating with bodies, that we can’t imagine ourselves as real without them.”
“Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer,” Billy said.
Richard laughed out loud. “Voltaire. ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.’ What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, for beings that have never known existence without the body, maybe the same thing is true. If our bodies don’t exist, perhaps it is necessary that we invent them.”
“You’re beginning to sound like a Hindu holy man. Hinduism teaches that all the phenomenal world is illusion. Maya. Where did you pick up this stuff?”
Billy just smiled. “Let’s say I’ve listened to a lot of preachers and holy men. But I can’t blame this on them. This is just my instinct talking.”
“So, you think you’ve got it all figured out?”
Billy actually laughed out loud. “Not even close, Richard. Not even remotely close.”
Mr. Ingalls and his assistant were carrying the table back to his car, and Richard saw that a man in coveralls and a baseball cap had arrived. Likely someone from the cemetery, checking in to make sure they were finished, and it had all gone okay. Everyone would wrap up and leave in a few minutes, and then workmen would be by to fill in the hole where his ashes had been interred.
“So,” Billy said with a sigh. “The Wanderer found you and contacted you. Is there anything about that you want to tell me? Anything you want to ask?”
“Not really, no,” Richard lied.
“Is he tempting you?” Billy asked, sounding suddenly impatient.
Richard laughed. “Yes, I think you could say that.”
Billy didn’t ask, but Richard knew he was desperate to hear the details. And that it also terrified him.
“I’m… I guess I’m pleased you’re still here,” Billy said. “And that you’re still talking to me. I know it must not be easy.”
Richard turned to Billy and looked him in the eye. And to his surprise, he saw the boy shrink back. He couldn’t tell if he was afraid, or just surprised at something he saw in Richard’s eyes.
“I’m still here, Billy. For now. But… Let’s just say you shouldn’t count your chickens.”
Keith was standing and staring into the dark hole where Richard’s ashes lay. Richard watched as Pil went up to him and put a heavy hand on his shoulder. It was time for them all to leave, and he was checking in to see if Keith was ready. Richard could sense Billy looking at him and then back to Keith and Pil. And Richard was sure the boy knew exactly what he had been thinking. About Pil. About possession. About all of it.
When he finally spoke, Richard could detect no discernible emotion of any kind in the boy’s voice.
“This is a temptation you’ll have to face, Richard. And what you decide will probably decide the fate of us all. And that includes Keith.”
Richard looked at the dark hole in the grass and clover between his parent’s graves. Eventually, perhaps, Keith would erect another headstone here, and what remained of his ashes would go on a shelf to gather dust for the next half century of Keith’s life. Should he live that long.
“Richard? What are you feeling?” Billy asked.
“Strangely,” Richard said, “I’m feeling nothing.”
Michelle hugged Keith and handed him the box of Richard’s ashes. Pil had the rainbow flag that had been draped on the altar, and Michelle still carried the vases of roses.
After a pause, Richard said, “So you don’t believe he is actually God. And I don’t either. But if he’s not, then who is he?”
“Richard, I truly don’t know who or what the Wanderer is. I’ve gleaned hints, bits and pieces, but that is all. Maybe you can help me find out more.”
Keith was walking slowly away now. Richard had to make a decision.
“Billy, I’ve seen a lot of horror movies. And I know there is a name for what I am doing to Keith right now. It’s called ‘haunting.’”
“Yes,” Billy agreed. “And when in a horror movie has that turned out well for the person who was haunted?”
Richard was silent.
“Richard, come with me. There are things you need to know, and things you need to see. You’ve done all you can here. At least for now.”
Richard stood and rubbed his temples as if his head was aching. “If I come with you, will you tell me what you know about the Wanderer?”
“I will. But there is much else you need to know as well.”
They stood together in silence as they watched Keith, Pil and Michelle get into the yellow SUV they called Big Bird. They continued standing in silence as the vehicle drove away and disappeared behind a grove of trees at the edge of the cemetery. The silence in the air was profound. There weren’t even any birds.
Richard knew that Billy was watching him intently, waiting for him to break and run after the vehicle. When it was finally out of sight, he heard the boy sigh.
Then, without a word, Billy walked away. And Richard followed.
As they walked through the cemetery, they passed a half dozen ghosts. Some who had been at the service, and some who had not. The old woman ghost in the native American dress was sitting cross-legged under a tree, not far from where Richard’s ashes had been interred. Richard glanced at her as they walked by, but he did not turn to look after they had passed. So he did not see her, watching them, as they left the cemetery. And when Billy glanced back, Richard thought it was just to make sure that he was following. He did not see that Billy caught the eye of the old woman, and that she smiled at him.
Richard and Billy also did not see Justin.
After the two had gone, the boy emerged from the woods, where he had been watching. He paid the old woman no heed and rushed by her without a glance. But she could clearly see the expression of hate and revulsion that the boy carried with him, like a weight upon his shoulders.
As Justin hurried after Richard and Billy, the old woman watched him with sad, knowing eyes.
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.