June 13, 5:12 am
I feel like I spent the entire night last night lying awake, listening for something in the room that I thought should have been there, but wasn’t.
The only feeling I can compare it to is this: Imagine you’re in a room where there has always been a grandfather clock. You’ve spent your entire life with that clock ticking away in the room. Then suddenly, it stops. You start, because you realize that something is different, but you can’t say what. The constant ticking has become such a part of you, that when it is gone, the empty space it leaves is something you can’t even define.
So, all night, I laid awake, listening for that sound that was missing, but never really being sure what the sound would be if I heard it.
And while I lay there, staring at the patterns the streetlight made on the ceiling of the bedroom, I thought of the last person in the world that should be on my mind right now: Justin Kimball.
I once read about an experiment that I found fascinating. I don’t remember all the details, but I know the goal of the study was to understand memory, and how malleable it is. And the experiment’s methodology was rather ingenious.
The subjects were all young adults, around the ages of twenty-five or so. And for each subject, there was an accomplice who was a trusted authority figure of the subject, such as an older sibling or a parent.
The way it worked is that the accomplice would tell the subject a story about when they were a small child. It was a generic story, that when the subject was three, they had become lost in a shopping mall for several hours. The accomplices were coached on how to tell an elaborate and detailed story, even though none of it was true.
“Do you remember when you were lost in the mall, and the security guard found you? He brought you into the mall office and gave you ice cream while they searched for your mom and dad. You were so upset, and you cried so hard you couldn’t eat the ice cream.”
But it was all a lie. The child had never been lost in a mall. The parent or the older sibling was just spinning a tale.
What was fascinating about the experiment was how the subjects reacted. Almost without exception, they ate up the story, fascinated to hear about an incident from their past that they didn’t remember. But the most interesting thing was that after hearing the story, and then being asked about it by the researchers, a majority of the children said that they now remembered the incident! They could not only recount the incident in great detail, but they would tell the researchers things that they now “remembered”—the name of the security guard, for instance, or the flavor of the ice cream. Often they would recount the relief and joy in their mother’s eyes as she ran into the room and swept them off their feet.
The point of the research was that memory is a very flexible, malleable, and creative thing.
I always identified with those children, since I’ve always thought my memory is pathetically bad. There are a ton of things I don’t remember from my childhood, or even my young adult years. So much of it now seems surreal and hazy.
Anyway, the point of this, and how it relates to Justin Kimball, is this: I can picture almost every detail of Richard’s relationship with Justin, so clearly it is almost like I lived it. I can feel the betrayal, the guilt, and Richard’s despair after Justin’s suicide. I can see the look on Richard’s face, and the anger in Justin’s eyes. It is all so clear to me, even now, that it feels as if I had been sitting on the couch downstairs and witnessed their last confrontation. After all, it had all unfolded in the very room where Richard would eventually be murdered. Even now, if I close my eyes I can see them, standing, nose to nose, screaming accusations and pain and resentment at each other.
Now, is this because Richard told me all those details, or have I made some of them up along the way? Does Justin Kimball’s face and their story seem so vivid because Richard was a great storyteller, or have I invested the story with my own details and meaning? Even ones Richard and Justin would never have ascribed to themselves?
And if that is true, perhaps my memory of their story is more about me than about them?
Now, Justin is long dead. Richard took almost a quarter century to follow him. The bad decisions he made as a young professor haunted him every day in between. More than once, lying in bed at night, Richard had cried on my chest, awakened from a nightmare where Justin’s eyes burned into him with deep accusation and anger.
It took me many years to understand why Richard was so haunted by Justin. And make no mistake, I’m not trying to minimize it, in any sense. It was clearly a traumatic, horrible experience, and it scarred Richard deeply. And to be honest, I always felt like that guilt was well-deserved. He showed amazingly poor judgment. For a young professor just starting on a career track at a public university, to have such a blatant, unwise affair with a student, was nuts. I still struggle with trying to understand what was going through Richard’s mind and how he could have possibly believed that the affair would end in anything but disaster. I can only conclude that Richard was overwhelmed by the feelings that came with the attention he was getting from the boy, and he lost his head.
I know from experience that a big part of Richard’s life motivation came from feeling that he was needed, and from believing that he could take care of and keep safe the people that he loved. And in Justin’s case, he failed spectacularly on both counts. So spectacularly that it called into question everything about his ability to have a positive romantic relationship, and even his very worth as a person. After all, if he couldn’t save Justin, what use could he be to anyone?
I tried to help Richard navigate that mine field and find his way to the other side. It was terrifying for me to watch, and at times I was unsure whether Richard and I would make it through. I never feared that Richard would follow in Justin’s footsteps and take his own life. But what seemed like a genuine possibility was that Richard would conclude he was a failure at doing the one thing that meant the most to him, and that was taking care of me.
It was terrifying, because our relationship hung in the balance. Should Richard remain ruled by his history with Justin, there was no future for the two of us.
It was worse in the first five years of our relationship. There were times during those years that I was sure that things were on the verge of falling apart, and I was always waiting for the hammer to fall. I always half expected to come home to find that Richard had packed my clothes, and would tearfully ask me to leave. But thank God, it never got to that point, and after a few years I relaxed, finally believing that it wouldn’t.
Eventually, Justin’s ghost became a presence that Richard learned to live with. In time, he allowed himself to believe that the ghost had moved on, and Richard let his past fade. Once that happened, the love between us truly flowered.
Justin’s memory never went away completely, but I convinced myself that Richard was finally making peace with what had happened. And yet, even when he died, I don’t think he had arrived at that peace. At least, not completely. He was still tormented by guilt and regret. If he had survived, maybe he would have continued the journey, and would have come to love that younger version of himself, without judgment. But it was a journey that Richard would never complete.
Just as Justin was never able to complete his own.
Maybe the truth is that we’re all haunted and stumbling all the time. There is no arriving, and not even any destination. There is just moving in the direction you want to go, until it all ends—suddenly, or gradually. In a car crash, or a heart attack, or the slow wasting of cancer or old age.
Or when a bullet comes through the living room window.
But until the end comes, all we can do is just place one foot in front of the other.
Now I’m the one that is full of loss and regret, much the way that Richard was. I hope I live long enough that the memory of Richard’s broken, shattered skull in my lap will fade, and the memory of his smile and his laugh will once again be the vision in my mind’s eye when I hear his name.
It is going to be a long, long journey.
And if I am lucky, unlike Richard, and unlike Justin, I will have the years I need to do it.
Until then, I may have many long nights, staring at the ceiling, listening for a sound that has disappeared.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.