The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 2.22: Ghost Town

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

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June 12, 5:00 pm

Richard looked down the hillside, wondering what Billy meant about this being a good place to begin. Begin what? Immediately below them was the Huntsman Cancer Center, where his mother had been treated and where she had died. Below that were the even more massive buildings of the University Medical Center. Further down the gentle slope of the hillside, the buildings of the University itself could be seen through the afternoon haze. Billy was already walking down the rocky hillside.

“Where are we going? Back to the University?”

“No, not the University. The hospital. I think it’s time you meet some of the other ghosts who inhabit the Hereafter.”

Billy trudged down the slope, and Richard followed, grumbling to himself. Obviously, this had been Billy’s goal all along. The boy had only been giving him the pieces of the puzzle that he thought Richard was ready to hear. But despite Richard’s frustration, he was also intrigued. Other than the few ghosts he had seen at the funeral, and a few at the library, he really had very little context for the story that Billy had been telling him. Richard knew he had much to learn. He felt like he did when he was a novice student, back at NYU. This new world was permeated with mystery, and the desire to understand it all was a growing hunger, deep in his belly.

He realized he had something else to thank Billy for. This was the first time since his death that any emotion had become stronger than his grief.

Billy says there are thousands, he thought. I wish I had something to write on. Something tells me I should be taking notes.

Billy was true to his word, and what he showed Richard in the hospital was alternately shocking and tragic.

They began at the Cancer Center. And as the pair walked through the front doors, behind an old man in a wheelchair and what looked like his daughter, Richard let out a low whistle under his breath.

“So, this is where they’ve been hiding,” he said with his eyes wide.

Richard estimated that for every ten people in the building, there was at least one ghost. He lingered back at the door, trying to stay out of the bustling traffic of both the living and the dead. Besides the grim sight of the ghosts in their various stages of dress and undress, this place also brought back a lot of painful memories. His mother had died here, more than thirty years ago.

Billy waded directly into the throngs, not looking to see if Richard was following. And as they walked slowly through the hallways, many of the dead turned to Billy and acknowledged him.

Sometimes it was just a glance. But often it was a hand that reached up to touch him. In every case, those hands just passed through him, but when it happened, Richard felt as if he was watching a holy man or a prince walking among the common people. There was a solemnity and a gentle reverence on their dead faces as they reached for Billy.

It did not surprise him to find that the dead here reflected the locale. Clearly, most or perhaps all of these souls had passed here in the Cancer Center. And they looked it. Nearly all were naked or in hospital gowns. Several were wrapped in their sheets, and a few had demanded they be dressed in their best clothes for their last hours. Most were elderly, although there were several children among them as well. Without exception, they all looked drawn, thin, weak, and very sad. Richard could see the same hollow cheekbones and paper-thin gray skin that his mother had developed in her last days. There were many women with either one or both breasts removed. The signs of cancer were less visible on the men, but he could only imagine how many of these old men had prostates that had grown large and eaten them away from the inside.

Richard hurried after Billy, although the weight of this place was already bearing down on his heart. Every old woman carried the face of his mother, and it reawakened in him the grief that he thought he had conquered long ago.

 “Billy…” he said, his voice choked with emotion. “I don’t know if I can be here. My mother died here. What if I see her? I don’t know if I can take that.”

Billy walked back to Richard and took his hand. It was a gentle and kind gesture, but it did little to break the stone that had lodged in Richard’s chest. But looking into the boy’s eyes let him at least control his breathing. Three dead children stared at their joined hands in wonder.

“Don’t worry, Richard. She’s not here. If she was, you would have known it as soon as you entered the door.”

Unaccountably, that news only made Richard’s heart heavier. He had dreaded seeing his mother. But for just a second, he had hoped.

“She never said my name before she died. Never recognized me. I actually thought…”

“Come with me, Richard. Your mother isn’t here. But there are some other ghosts you should see.”

Richard walked with Billy, hand in hand, down the corridors of the Cancer Center. Slowly, Richard gained control of his racing heart and stopped looking for his mother around ever corner.

The ghosts they passed did not follow, but surprisingly often their eyes were on Billy from the moment he came into their sight, and did not leave him until they were gone.

“Some of them seem to know you,” Richard said.

“It is mostly my age they respect. But yes, I have known many of them since they returned. Like the other haunts of the dead, I come here often. I can’t speak to or touch any of them, but I think they find my presence comforting. And that does my heart good.”

 They walked slowly down one of the main corridors, past the treatment rooms, and past open doors where the dying or the recovering could be seen, old and tired in their beds. Most of the dead that sat with the living were also very old, their naked, withered, and disfigured bodies often so horrifying to Richard that he had to turn away. But sometimes there were also the ghosts of the young—and sometimes, the shockingly young. Despite their withered and haggard appearances, the young ghosts often had smiles and faces that seemed less weary and more hopeful.

“The young ghosts don’t seem so sad,” Richard said.

“You’ll notice that, everywhere you go in the Hereafter. The young can often cope with their deaths, far better than the old. Many of the very young almost don’t seem to realize that anything has changed. They just go on with their lives, playing and taking each day as it comes, just as they did when they were alive. The old are much more burdened with loss, pain, and regret.”

“Like me,” Richard said, feeling the weight of every year he had lived, and every loss he had suffered.

Billy just squeezed Richard’s hand, but did not look at him as they walked.

Some of the old, wrapped in their sheets, looked so much like stereotypical ghosts that Richard couldn’t help but smirk at them.

“Boo!” he said to one old ghost, as it came around a corner. Her sheet was draped over her head like a veil, and only her eyes peered out.

He felt Billy’s eyes on him. “Does she amuse you?”

“Kind of. It’s just so stereotypical. Ghosts in sheets. And the moaning. It’s all around us. It just feels like an awful movie from the 50s. I keep expecting to see Vincent Price walking around here with a cross or something.”

“Just remember, Richard. Their suffering is no laughing matter. Neither is your suffering. Or mine.”

Richard took that in silently. Billy was right. It was easy to dismiss these figures. But every one of them was someone who had lived a life and had it torn away from them. Every one was, as Billy had called them, a bundle of loss and regret.

“Why do they stay here?” Richard asked.

“It isn’t unusual for a ghost to stay near the site of their death. Especially for those whose minds succumb early. Our death site is like an invisible tether, for all of us. We are always drawn back to it, no matter how far we go, or how long we are dead.”

“Perhaps there is something behind old ghost stories after all.” Richard mused. “That pretty much describes the idea of a haunting. A ghost that can’t move on and is always tied to the place where it died.”

As they passed a room, Richard stopped and looked in. What he saw broke his heart, and he let go of Billy’s hand. He walked into the room and saw the ghost of a young girl. She looked no more that twenty and was dressed in a fashion from the 50s or 60s. Her hair was in a ponytail, and there was a blue ribbon in it. And the long skirt looked like all it was missing was a needlepoint of a poodle. She could have been on her way to the sock hop.

She was standing at the bedside of an old man. He appeared to be in his nineties. He was on life support and looked like he had only days or hours to live. There was no one else in the room but the two, and the girl held the man’s hand. Tears were rolling off her cheeks, and disappearing before they could fall onto his crisp, white bed sheets.

“Her name is Julie.” Billy said behind him. But Richard did not turn around. He thought he knew this girl’s story, because it was his story too. Or would be, in another fifty or sixty years.

“What do you know about her?”

“Very little. I don’t know how she died. But I first ran across her and Pete, her boyfriend, in 1956. They were both still young then, and she was newly dead. But I’m afraid Pete is nearing the end of his road now too.”

“And you’re telling me that his girlfriend has been by his side ever since she died?”

“I don’t think she’s left him, even for a moment. For many years, she actually seemed happy. Just like I did with Frances, she pretended they were married and building a home together. I even met her once in the 70s. Pete was probably about thirty-five by then and had married and had a family. But Julie still never left his side. She laid with them in their bed when she could, and just sat vigil when she couldn’t. I don’t know all that happened in the years since then, but I think Pete’s wife is long gone. And his children don’t seem to visit him here. But Julie has never left his side.”

“Has she…” Richard choked. “Has she been happy?”

Billy walked up beside him, and Richard thought he could see the boy shrugging his shoulders. “Who’s to say, Richard? I’m not sure I even know what happiness is now. It seems like such an… old word.”

Richard couldn’t look at the girl and the dying man any more. He pictured himself sitting like this beside Keith, as he withered and died, many years from today. Would that journey have been worth it? And then what? At the end, what would he have to show for it?

“Do you know what she’ll do? I mean, when he’s gone.”

Billy seemed reluctant to answer, but finally sighed deeply. “I can guess. Richard, for all these years, Julie has lived for no other reason than to be beside Pete. When he is gone… Well, there won’t be much reason for her to go on. And yet, she can’t die. She can’t pass on. So her mind will probably go.”

“She’ll be one of the mad ones.”

“I believe so. That is certainly likely. I’ve seen it happen before.”

Richard’s eyes were wet. “Did you show me this to prove something to me? That this was my fate, if I went back to Keith?”

“Richard, Julie’s experience is just one of many paths that exist in the Hereafter. It is not uncommon, but it is for you to decide if there is a lesson for you here. And no. I didn’t specifically know that Pete and Julie would be here.”

Richard was quiet. He felt like his mind was falling down a long and endless well, with no bottom anywhere in sight.

“Billy, how long will it be before I lose my sanity? Even if I don’t stay with Keith, how long?”

“Richard, look at me.” The boy took Richard’s shoulders and turned him away from the two figures in the room. “I haven’t lost my mind. Not all ghosts do.”

“Just most.”

He could see that the boy was trying to decide what to say. It even looked like he was considering telling Richard a lie. But what he finally settled on sounded like the truth. “Yes. Most. But not all. It is possible for a ghost to save their sanity and find a kind of peace. It may be a limited peace, and very different from the peace you had among the living. But it is a peace all the same.”

“Julie kept her sanity through her devotion to Pete. But you’re not sure she will keep it after he is gone. He was her lifeline.”

“Only because she made him be,” Billy said. And when Richard didn’t reply, he continued. “Come, Richard. I think we’ve seen enough here.”

Richard followed numbly as they left the Cancer Center and descended the gentle slope of the hillside to the main University Medical Center.

Here, too, the ghosts were numerous—although perhaps not quite as numerous or as old as those in the Cancer Center. But as they walked down a hallway with a sign pointing to the Maternity Ward, Richard heard a wailing that was like nothing he had ever heard before. It was clearly the sound of a baby, but the crying was far beyond any sound he had ever heard a baby make. It was a sound full of pain and terror, and it made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He stopped in the middle of the hallway, not wanting to go any further. Billy had to take his hand once more, and guide him into the room where the screaming was echoing off the walls like a gurgling siren.

Trying not to let the screaming sound blot everything else out of his mind, Richard saw they were definitely in the maternity ward. There were two beds in the room, both filled with very pregnant women. And both of them had visitors, so the room was crowded, and only the flimsy privacy curtain separated the two beds. Still, if it wasn’t for the blood-curdling screams that filled the room, it would have been a cheerful scene. The pregnant women were smiling, as were their husbands, and for one of the mothers, her two previous children as well. They all gathered at the bedsides and made light conversation. One of the little boys put his ear to his mother’s belly, as if he could hear the unborn baby moving, and she laughed.

Richard put his hands to his ears to block out the screaming, but it did no good. It cut through him like a knife.

Billy pulled Richard around the end of the bed, so he could see the space between the bed and the outside wall.

The crying baby laid there, just inches to the left of one of the father’s work boots, which looked huge compared to the tiny shape. The child looked to be only an hour or two old, and it was pink and naked. A little girl. And she screamed as if she was in terror, or in pain, or both. The remnants of the umbilical cord still hung from the little girl’s belly, and her tiny face was so pink that it looked ready to explode. The gaping little mouth was black, toothless, and it drooled wetly with each scream. She laid on her back, her tiny hands grasping desperately in the empty air

Richard couldn’t take it. He rushed from the room and kept running until he was out of earshot of the wailing child. When he found a waiting room with an empty chair, he sank down into it with his head in his hands.

When he opened his eyes, Billy was standing before him.

“What in the hell was that?” Richard barked at the boy. Billy didn’t flinch at the sound, but just looked at Richard. “Why isn’t someone helping her?”

“What do you expect them to do? They don’t know she’s there.”

“Why don’t you help her? Isn’t there anything you can do?”

“And what do you think I should do?”

“I don’t know. Pick her up, at least. Put her on a bed. But do something!

“The baby doesn’t have the Hand,” Billy said quietly, trying to calm Richard. “You and I can touch each other because we both have that Gift. But she doesn’t, and almost certainly never will. So there is nothing either the living or the dead can do for her.”

“So, what? She just stays on the floor?”

“I’m afraid it’s worse than that, Richard. Yes, the baby will stay on the floor, but because she is so young, she hasn’t learned to let the hard surfaces of the world pass through her. So she is kicked around constantly. Sometimes, if she is lucky, she gets kicked under a bed, and can be there for weeks. But a janitor swabbing the floor at night is likely to knock her back out from under the bed again, eventually. And then she is back beside the bed, just waiting for someone to step on her.”

Richard was appalled at the image of an unsuspecting adult stepping on a tiny baby, on a hard tile floor. He could almost hear the wailing in his head, as he imagined it.

“And then what happens?”

“You know what happens. She is reset.”

“To where?”

“To that same room, unfortunately. It is the room where she was born. I think she’s a few hours old, so my assumption is that she died in the arms of her mother, soon after she came into the world. And since then, the beds have been moved. Now, when she resets, she just appears in space about three feet above the floor. And she falls to the ground. Sometimes this triggers an immediate reset, and sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, and the baby recovers, then she is doomed to be kicked around and stepped on by the living until she is reset once again.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“More than twenty years, I’m afraid.”

Richard was so appalled that he couldn’t even look at Billy. But the boy went on.

“I return here every few months. I’m hoping against hope that one day the baby will get the Hand, and I can pick her up. I don’t know exactly what I’d do if that was the case. But at the very least, I could move her into a place where she wouldn’t be kicked around and stepped on the way she is now. Maybe, she’d be able to find some peace.”

Richard turned his face away as Billy sank down into a chair next to him. And in a few minutes his anger slowly abated.

I imagine it hasn’t been easy for Billy, either, Richard thought. Coming here to check on this wailing child. Trying to pick her up. Over and over again. For decades.

Richard looked around the waiting room. He could still hear the baby wailing, but it was distant now.

“Billy, this is probably the most horrible thing I have ever seen. I don’t understand how this can be allowed to happen.”

“I’m afraid the story of this baby is only one of the many stories like this you’ll encounter. If your mind survives long enough, that is.” He sighed. “Not far from here is a blind boy. It seems he died when he was about thirteen. He has no ability to see or communicate with anyone, either ghost or living. Like many of the ghost children, I think he is just looking for his lost parents. But he doesn’t have any of the gifts, so none of us can help him. He just wanders until something resets him. Usually a car, or even just getting trampled on a crowded sidewalk. And then he begins to wander again.”

Richard put his hands over his ears, but that did nothing to block out Billy’s voice. He sounded almost dreamy now, lost in thought.

“In an abandoned refrigerator, in a junkyard just north of town, there is a little girl. She was four when she crawled into the refrigerator, could not escape, and then died there. When she came back, she was locked in the refrigerator with her dead and rotting body. That was more than forty years ago. I could hear her sobbing, but there was nothing I could do. Someday, perhaps, someone will discover the old refrigerator, and she will be released. But I doubt there will be anything left of her mind.”

“Billy, please stop,” Richard said, his voice weak even to his own ears.

“In Provo there is a man who died on the seventh story of a run-down apartment building that has since been torn down. Today, it is just an empty block with the broken concrete and steel of the foundation scattered in the vacant lot. If you go there, you will see him, materializing in space, and falling the seven stories, where he is instantly impaled on a scrap of rebar. It invariably resets him, and within seconds, he is materializing in space again. He never stops screaming as he falls, shatters, reforms, and continues falling.”

Richard was trembling now, but his voice was firm. He looked at Billy and wondered if his eyes looked as blank as his soul felt.

“And you tell me you still believe in God.”

Billy seemed shocked at the question. As if it was the last thing he expected Richard to say.

“I do. There is suffering in the Hereafter, to be sure. But there is also suffering in the land of the living. And yet people find hope in the world, despite that suffering. Millions of people died in World War II. Close to a half million people died of AIDS, just in the time you’ve been on this planet.  Millions more of COVID. Slavery in America and around the world created more suffering than could ever be described or understood. And yet, hope continues. Being witness to suffering isn’t a reason to lose hope. It’s a reason to find it.”

“You’ve given me very little reason to see any hope in the Hereafter. It all seems like nothing but a cruel joke. If there is a God, then all this is nothing but a way for him to punish innocent people. And if there is no God, which seems more likely, then this is all just some glitch in the Matrix that doesn’t care about our suffering. And all this is just a really crappy poker hand that we’ve drawn.”

Billy stood and offered Richard his hand. “My job isn’t to convince you that God exists, or that He cares about us. But there is still more I’d like to show you. Perhaps some much needed contrast to what you’ve seen here. Do you still trust me? And will you come with me?”

“Anything to get out of this horror show,” Richard said, gesturing at the hospital. And he took Billy’s hand.

The rest of the night was like some kind of dream to Richard, or more accurately, like some twisted version of A Christmas Carol.

He and Billy walked throughout Salt Lake City, and Richard quickly realized that he was hungry to see examples of life in the Hereafter that could take the bitter taste of the hospital out of his mouth.

 What he saw was definitely less tragic than the baby in the maternity ward, but more dreamlike and strange.

Richard met many of the dead that night, and he saw that the diversity in their experiences was far more than he had been led to believe. What he saw was not the moaning ghosts in sheets that he had seen at the hospital or even the library or cemetery. But he saw a parade of what Billy called “the persistent dead.”

“I call them ‘persistent,’” Billy said, “because they seem to move forward and toward peace, rather than losing their grasp and allowing their minds to slip away.”

He had seen a few of these persistent dead at the library, but he found that there were many other places that they congregated as well.

At the Cathedral of the Madeline, he found a dozen ghosts that reminded him greatly of Billy. They sat in prayer or meditation, and they exuded a sense of contentment that he had never seen in his living years. No human he had ever met seemed as at peace as these seekers. They ran the gamut in ages, from the very young to the ancient, and their nakedness or their bloody clothes mattered little compared to their radiant souls.

When Billy led him into a theatre in Trolley Square that was showing a late night revival of Gone with the Wind, Richard saw it was full of as many of the dead as the living. The seats were mostly full, so they congregated in the aisles and even sat on the laps of the patrons. And they all stared at the screen with such rapture that it made Richard’s mouth hang agape.

From what he could see, the ghosts came from all eras. There were even a few ghosts here that likely had lived and died in the years not too far removed from the events on the screen. And Richard couldn’t help but notice the older ghosts, the ones that had been haunting this valley the longest, were the most transported by the film unfolding on the screen. The tears in their eyes were the closest to the surface.

He found it just as hard to watch the old ghosts cry, as he did to see the young ones laugh. The fact that those dead for a century or more could still feel so deeply as to despair at Scarlett’s plight, seemed as heartbreaking as the teen boy in the football uniform, laughing at Prissy telling Scarlet she didn’t know nothing about birthing no babies. Or the 50s era housewife, in her bouffant hairdo, bathrobe, and bunny slippers, staring longingly at Clark Gable.

Richard knew Billy was watching him intently. “Many of the oldest ghosts have lost their memories. But those who have not are the most at peace.”

“Why are so many of the ghosts in the theater older? I mean, ghosts who died long ago?”

Billy just shrugged. “I supposed it is the same for the dead as for the living. It is an escape. It isn’t the only one, but we dead do like our movies.”

“Not just Gone with the Wind?”

“Oh, certainly not,” Billy said. “Historical dramas are popular, but you’ll find almost as many of us watching romantic comedies. The more screwball and improbable, the better. Ghosts seem especially drawn to anything with Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock.”

Richard laughed aloud. “I once told Keith we’d only see Miss Congeniality over my dead body. I guess I wasn’t the only one.”

Billy actually looked shocked. “Really? I love that movie!”

The two of them laughing together was a necessary corrective to the weight of their tour. And as if on cue, the audience laughed at something on the screen.

I can’t tell the difference between the laughs of the dead and the laughs of the living, Richard thought. Maybe, if we could all laugh in unison, we would suddenly all blink and see each other. If only for a second.

On 7th East some hours later, Billy pointed out to him another way that a ghost could find peace. A running man in a top hat that could have been from the 1920s passed them on the street. He was wearing a full tuxedo, but he looked young and fit. There was no way to tell how he had died. Richard could only glimpse him, as the man ran past them on the street, and disappeared to the south.

“He is a runner,” Billy explained. “He has been running back and forth, from one end of the Hereafter to the other, for almost a century.”

“Why does he do it?”

“I’m sure I’m not qualified to answer. But I think it provides him some comfort. There are many like him. In fact, there are particular routes they seem to favor. Many stick close to the boundaries of the Hereafter, as if it is a many-hundred-mile racetrack. You’ll see the same ones pass by, every couple weeks, as they complete the circuit.”

“That seems insane.”

Billy actually laughed out loud. “More so than everything else, you mean?”

Richard had to agree. It was no more insane than babies on the floor or civil war veterans crying while watching Gone with the Wind.

“There is still one thing that confuses me,” Richard said, as they walked down 7th East. It was deeply past midnight by this point, and the streets had become virtually deserted. “So far, you have not shown me any ghost that can respond to your touch. Do they exist?”

“I have met only a handful. That includes you, myself, and Tuilla. Perhaps there are more, but there is no way for me to know for sure.”

“Why not?”

“Because unless both ghosts have the Hand, then there is no way to know. I can’t pick up the baby girl in the hospital because she doesn’t have it. And neither could you. But since both of us have it, we can touch. I’m sure there are some that have the Hand that I don’t know, simply because I have never tried to touch them all.”

“I can’t believe you haven’t tried.”

Billy actually looked slightly embarrassed. “When you’ve been dead long enough, you’ll understand. You’ll never stop longing for touch, but you’ll eventually stop trying to seek it out.”

“Well, you’ll stop, maybe. But I know I won’t. Touching your hand has been one of the few things that have kept me sane since I got here.”

Billy just took in a deep breath, but he didn’t reply. And Richard knew he was getting close to something he shouldn’t discuss. He was already thinking that with enough time, there wouldn’t be any way to stop him from trying to kiss this boy.

If what Billy says is coming is true, then eventually there won’t be any movie theaters for us to lose ourselves in. No readers in libraries for us to shadow. And even, if the worst comes, no Keith to be my lifeline. If that happens, there won’t be anything left but us. Nothing but me and this strange boy with bare feet and a straw hat.

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.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. His poems and short stories have appeared or journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre, Apparition Literary Journal, Grain, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He loves hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at All of the trilogy's over 207 chapters are available there for subscribers, and new poems, short stories, and other content is posted there every Friday.

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