June 13, 8:20 am
It was only a quarter mile from the hillside on which he had died, down to the “This Is The Place” monument. Billy led the way, with Richard tagging behind. After their talk about the Vastness, and Richard telling him about his terror of death, Billy thought he understood the man much better. He had met many people in his life who lacked faith, and who were attached to the trappings of their time before the Hereafter. But none he had ever met seemed as desperately bound to their life as Richard Pratt.
He wouldn’t make a very good Buddhist, Billy thought. It is interesting that a man who has studied so much Indian philosophy has learned so little from it.
By the time they reached the monument, which was still mostly abandoned this early in the morning, the sun was bathing the valley below in a gentle, golden light. The figures of Brigham Young and his companions on the fifty foot high central pillar were now shimmering in the first rays of the sun. Only the base of the monument was still in shadow, as they sat on the low railing. Behind them was the bas-relief portrait of the pioneers of 1847, rendered larger than life. Billy thought the likeness of the wagon was especially true to his memory of what life had really been like in those early days of the Salt Lake Valley.
When they had settled, Richard seemed ready to talk again. He still looked tired, but at least, Billy thought, he had shaken off most of the despair that blanketed him during their earlier discussion.
“You were going to explain the gifts,” Richard said. “What are they? And who told you about them?”
“It was Tuilla. After she found me at Bridal Veil Falls, she became a kind of teacher to me, or perhaps a guru, in the more modern parlance. She felt like a physical embodiment of God’s love. When I was with her, I was as close to that glowing face of God as I had ever come in this dark place.”
“You sound like a devotee.”
“I suppose I am. But not just because she is so wise, or because she has so much compassion. If I’m devoted to her, it’s because I see how important she is. Not only to me, but to all of us. To you. To Keith. To everyone.”
Richard contemplated his words, as if he was a fish deciding whether to take the dangled bait. Billy expected him to pursue the details about Tuilla, so he was surprised at his next question.
“You’ve said there are both light gifts and dark gifts. I think I get what the light gifts are. But what about the dark ones? Did she ever explain them to you?”
“Not for several years. But yes, she told me, eventually. She told me about all the gifts, and about everything she knew or suspected was coming. She told me about Drouillard, and that she called him ‘the Wanderer.’ And she prepared me for the day that I might meet you, although I’m only just now realizing that was what she was doing.”
Again, Richard didn’t rise to take the bait. He seemed focused on just one thing.
“You didn’t answer my question. You have been talking about these gifts since we met. What are they, exactly?”
With a sigh, Billy explained.
“It’s fairly simple, really. Let’s start with the gifts you already know. The first three gifts are the Eye, the Ear and The Hand. They come at different times for different ghosts, but always in that order. In all cases, attaining them takes years, and they are far from guaranteed. Remember, it was thirty years before Mattie and I got the Eye and the Ear—which meant we could see other ghosts, and hear them as well. Those two gifts often, but not always, come together.”
“The two gifts I had my first day here,” Richard said, stating it as a fact, and not a question.
“Yes. I mentioned they seem to come more quickly now, but it is still usually a matter of months and years for new ghosts. And as you know, some never get them at all. And never have I seen any of the gifts bestowed in a matter of days.”
“Why is it speeding up?”
“You seem to enjoy asking me questions I can’t answer, Richard,” Billy said with an ironic smile. “I really don’t know. Maybe it signals some kind of evolution in the Hereafter. But I suspect it has something to do with the Wanderer. As his plans have accelerated, nearly everything here in this world has sped up along with it.”
That appeared to satisfy Richard for now. “And the Third Gift?”
“You have that as well. As do I. The Hand is the ability for ghosts to touch each other, and as I have told you, it is exceedingly rare.”
“Why is it so few?”
“I suspect that the madness that comes to most ghosts arrests any development of the gifts. Once the mind goes, no more gifts come to us. And as you know, the madness comes for most of us, eventually. In fact, most of the lost souls you have seen have gained none of the three gifts, which is why they don’t acknowledge our presence.” Billy paused, thoughtfully.
“Does Mattie have the Third Gift?”
“I don’t know. Or, I should say, I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure. The few ghosts I have met who have the Hand have invariably been old. I wonder if it is even possible for the angels of the Wanderer to get the Hand. It may be reserved for those who have found peace in this world.”
“I haven’t found peace,” Richard said. “Far from it.”
“Yes, you are an anomaly, Richard. In so many ways.”
Richard sighed. “Okay, so that’s the three gifts I knew about. What are the other three?”
“Tuilla taught me to call the first three gifts ‘the Light Gifts’. They relieve the suffering of being a ghost. But there are two ‘Dark Gifts’ as well. Imagine the three Light Gifts as bricks in a line. Place on top of those three, two bricks to represent the Dark Gifts.
“Like we’re building a pyramid.” Richard said.
“Yes. One of these Dark Gifts you know, although you may have never thought of it as a gift. That gift is called Possession. It is a dark gift that I believe was not part of our world until the Wanderer brought it to us. Or perhaps awakened it in us. In any case, it is a gift that is taught, not just gained. So in an actual sense, it is a gift that the Wanderer gives to his angels. He uses the promise of Possession as a tool to snare and enslave his followers. And to cause pain and destruction.”
Billy saw Richard look away, and it was such a sharp motion of his head that it interrupted what he was saying. Turning to look at the man, Billy said, “I know he has tried to enslave you with that gift, Richard.”
He expected either a confirmation or a denial from the man, but Richard said nothing. He just focused on the city in the distance, and the slowly shrinking shadow of the monument that was cast onto the field to their west. When it was clear Richard wasn’t going to respond, Billy continued.
“There is not much more seductive to the dead than the idea that they can slip back into a flesh and blood body, and rejoin the living. If you had succumbed to the Wanderer the day he came to you, undoubtedly you would have gained this Dark Gift. And you would have been lost to us.”
“You say it is something only the Wanderer can provide.” Richard said, but his eyes still avoided Billy. “How sure of that are you?”
Billy sighed. “Richard, I’m sure of very little anymore. I wish I could tell you that Possession is a gift that you will never get, because it is the darkest of the gifts, and results in damnation for any that use it. But I have to be honest. Considering that you came into this world with the first three gifts, probably from the very beginning, I think you may already have the Fourth Gift, dormant inside you.”
For a brief instant, Richard glanced at Billy. And the bearded man’s eyes were clouded, as if by a memory.
He knows it’s true, Billy thought. He’s sensed it. He knows that it’s already within him.
“Please understand,” Billy said, hoping that his voice didn’t sound as desperate as he felt. “That if you do find yourself with the Dark Gift, that you must always be on guard against using it. To do so would be damnation. Tuilla has told me that possession can never result in anything but death and destruction. Richard, my greatest terror is that you will succumb to the Dark Gift, and the Wanderer will twist it, and you, to his will. And then there will be two malevolent gods in the Hereafter instead of one. And if that happens, there could be no end to the devastation.”
“But if, as you seem to think, I’m the Wanderer’s equal, then couldn’t I turn the Fourth Gift to good? Couldn’t I use it against him?”
Billy’s anger surprised even himself. “No! Richard, you don’t know what you’re playing with, even in suggesting that. Possession is evil, and I beg you not to even try.” He stopped and swallowed hard. “I sense that if you were to try, it could mean the end of everything.”
Richard just stared at him for a very long time. So long that Billy actually felt uncomfortable under his gaze. The man was unreadable.
What is he thinking?
Finally, with a sigh, Richard spoke again. “Tell me about the Fifth Gift.”
Billy was relieved to leave behind the subject of possession, but he didn’t want to show that relief to Richard. “The Fifth Gift, which is also called the second Dark Gift, isn’t a gift for the dead, but for the living. And it is more of a curse than a gift. It’s fair to say that it isn’t granted, as much as inflicted on those that receive it. I have never seen it manifest, but Tuilla has told me it can happen. And that when it does, it’s a harbinger that we are in our last days.”
“And what is it?”
“The Fifth Gift is called Mediumship.”
Richard stopped to consider what Billy had said, and the boy could tell that his mind immediately went down the path that Billy was most afraid of.
“Wait, does this mean there is a way for the living to bridge that gap? That there is a way for them to see and talk to the dead?” Richard asked.
“Richard, please. Remember that mediumship is one of the Dark Gifts, just like possession.”
“But that’s bullshit!” Richard cried, suddenly very agitated. “You’re telling me that there are actually two ways to bridge the gap between the world of the living and the world of the dead. And both are somehow ‘forbidden’? Forbidden by who? Forbidden by what? By Tuilla? By your God?”
“No, I need to know! You’re saying that the dead aren’t allowed to possess in order to be in the world of the living again. And that even the living aren’t allowed to reach through and talk to us here!”
“That’s what I’m telling you. Yes.”
But Richard wasn’t listening now. “So, is Mediumship like it is in the movies? Can a living person just sit down, close their eyes, concentrate, and talk to us?”
“No, I don’t think it’s like that at all. But Richard, I really don’t know. All I know is what Tuilla has told me. And as far as I know, no medium exists, and perhaps none ever will. Please don’t let thoughts of it take away your focus.”
“Fuck my focus,” Richard said. But it was under his breath, and Billy knew it was too late. Richard was imagining what it would be like to have Keith reach through the veil and talk to him again. Maybe even see him. His mind was racing, trying to get a grasp on the possibilities.
“Why won’t you tell me how it’s done?” Richard said, and his voice was dark and his eyes burned into Billy.
Without a word, Billy stood, walked over to where Richard was staring at him, and with all the strength he could muster he slapped Richard Pratt across the face. The impact was enough to send the man flailing back onto the brick pavement surrounding the monument, and when he regained his senses, the look that he gave the boy was more of shock than anger.
Perfect, Billy thought. Just enough to interrupt that line of thought.
With more anger in his voice than he actually felt, Billy grabbed Richard by the shoulders and towered over him. “Richard, stop! For Keith’s sake, and for all our sakes, just fucking stop! Do you think I’m joking when I tell you that mediumship and possession are dark, and evil? Do you think I’m lying to you? Why would I? Believe me when I tell you that this is nothing you want to be fucking around with!”
“Says who?” Richard bellowed.
That silenced him, but with a sinking feeling, Billy knew Richard was not about to give up on breaking through the wall between the living and the dead. There was a hungry, frightened, desperate look in his eyes. But to his credit, he asked no more questions. And quickly the look of shock and anger in his eyes drained away. He pushed Billy off him roughly, and stood up, unconsciously brushing the dust from his clothes, although no dust was there.
When they were sitting on the railing again, Richard and Billy had both regained their composure. Richard still wouldn’t look at Billy, and the boy couldn’t tell if it was from shame or anger. Finally, Richard spoke again.
“So there is a Sixth Gift? One last brick to cap off the pyramid?”
Billy took a moment to gather his wits before replying. “Yes. But it is only a rumor. Like the Light Gifts, it is a gift for the dead. But I don’t know of any who have received it, and it may be little more than wishful thinking on our part.”
“And what is it?”
Billy finally turned to look at Richard when he spoke. “I suppose it is the one gift you will never want. It’s called Passage.”
Richard’s eyes narrowed, but he still didn’t look at Billy.
“And what the hell does that mean?”
“Just as you would expect. Escape. Permanently leaving this place. Going back into the Vastness, and then on to heaven. Or nirvana. Or whatever truly lies on the other side.”
“And you think that is possible?”
“Tuilla does. And many of the sane ghosts not only believe in it, but seek it with all their hearts. Maybe it is only the faith that you so roundly decry. But the quest for it seems to bring peace to many who find themselves here.”
“Okay,” Richard said, clearing his throat. “So that’s it. No Seventh Gift? No hidden gifts you’re not telling me about?”
“No, Richard. That’s all I know. All that Tuilla taught me.”
When he spoke again, Richard’s voice was soft. “So who is this old woman? Is she a ghost like us?”
“Yes, but she is the very oldest. I know little beyond her name, and that she is as old, I think, as the Wanderer. She doesn’t speak of her life before the Hereafter. It’s clear she was a Native American, and from the look of her robes, she died violently. I don’t know the connection between them, but I’ve always seen them as two sides of the same coin. Where the Wanderer is darkness, Tuilla is light.”
Looking down into his hands, Richard sighed. “Billy, we’ve been talking all night. You’ve walked me all over this goddamned city. You’ve shown me things that were both horrifying and beautiful. You’ve explained to me how this place works, at least as best you can. But for the life of me, I swear. You haven’t told me a fucking thing that is useful.”
“I’m sorry, Richard, but it is all I know. What were you hoping to hear?”
“I don’t know,” Richard said, sounding truly defeated. “You tell me I’m somehow important here, but you haven’t told me anything that helps me understand why you think that. You want me to help you fight this thing you call the Wanderer, but nothing you’ve told me has given me any idea how I’m supposed to do that, either.”
“I didn’t promise you all the answers, Richard. In fact, I can only promise you one thing.” Richard looked up, with some hope in his eyes. “I can promise you I will stay with you, and that we’ll figure it out, together.”
“I’m afraid that’s not good enough,” Richard sighed, his expression one of regret. “You haven’t given me any reason to think there’s any hope. Or any reason to stay here, when I could be spending whatever time I have with Keith.”
“Richard, if you love Keith, the only way to protect him is to stop the Wanderer. Until we do, everyone in the Salt Lake valley is at risk.” Billy could hear the desperation in his own voice and struggled to keep it under control. “More than two million living people are in the bounds of the Hereafter. Even if the Wanderer doesn’t target Keith directly, he is at risk. Everyone in the Hereafter is.”
“So, great. Supposed I do sign on to this… holy war, or whatever it is. How do we fight him?” Richard asked. “How do we ever find him? What about this old woman? Can she tell us where he is?”
“No, unfortunately, the Wanderer severed his connection with Tuilla well over a century ago. She believes it is even possible he has forgotten she existed.”
“Fantastic. You want me to fight in your war against an enemy that nobody can find. And you don’t have the slightest idea how we’d even fight him if we knew. Does that about sum it up?”
Billy couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, pretty much.”
“You’re fucking nuts.”
That made Billy laugh, and it surprised him that it actually felt good. “But remember, as powerful as the Wanderer is, he’s just a ghost, like us. He is powerful, but he isn’t omnipresent. I don’t believe his ghost body can be in more than one place at one time, any more than you or I can. He is somewhere, and we just need to find him. Once we do, then perhaps we can figure out a way to fight him.”
“So how do we find him?”
“I think we have to start with the ones who know him. I’m not sure any of them can tell us where he is, or how to find him. But if anybody can, it will be one of them.”
“You’re talking about Mattie.”
“No, actually not. Mattie is too powerful, and too insane, and because she loathes me, she would never respond to anything we could ask. And that’s assuming she would even let us get close to her again, which she probably wouldn’t.”
Billy paused a second before replying. “I’m talking about Justin.”
Richard’s eyes narrowed. “Billy, you have to be kidding.”
“No, I’m not. Think about it. Of all the angels in the Wanderer’s army, there is only one that shares a deep connection with you. Your unique bond with Justin may either entice him to turn on his God, or at the very least, he may unwittingly give up some information.”
Richard burst out laughing. “What makes you think Justin will help me? Help us? In case you missed it, we don’t have a great history. I drove him to kill himself, and then he killed me. The last thing in the world he will want to do is anything that he thinks will help me track down and destroy his god.”
“I’m not so sure,” Billy said, giving Richard a knowing glance. “Love and hate are often two sides of the same coin. There is no way that Justin could hate you as much as he does, without still loving you just as fiercely. Why do you think he has come after you? Why is he still coming after you, and the people you care about? You can’t hate someone that much that doesn’t matter to you a great deal.”
Billy waited while the man considered this, hoping that he would see at least a spark of truth is his words. When Richard spoke again, it was slowly.
“Elie Wiesel once said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. And if we can be sure of anything, it is that what Justin is feeling toward me is definitely not indifference.” Billy could see that Richard’s feelings about the boy were far from indifferent as well. “There was a moment in Justin’s eyes, there in the courtroom, where I saw the same vulnerable, needy, hungry boy I knew all those years ago.”
“It should be worth a try, Richard,” Billy said, gently. But it didn’t appear that Richard heard him. The man’s mind was already starting to problem-solve.
“So,” Richard said, “if we’re going to find Justin, then Howard Gunderson is the key. He’s the one Justin has been controlling. If we go to Howard, maybe Justin will be there.”
“Perhaps,” Billy said, not wanting to interrupt Richard’s train of thought.
“On the other hand, what if Justin is through with Howard? We could wait there forever, and from what you’re telling me about what is coming, I don’t think we have forever to wait.”
“It’s a risk,” Billy agreed. “Justin may well be done with Howard. But he’s possessed him at least twice, that we know of. The chance that he’ll return to him again may be our best hope. And right now, it feels like the only hope we have.”
“Agreed,” Richard said.
Billy smiled and put a hand on Richard’s shoulder. “So, where do we find Howard Gunderson?”
Richard looked determined. “Well, thanks to the Salt Lake City criminal justice system, that may be the easy part. I heard the detective talking to Michelle at my funeral. They’ve rescheduled his hearing for tomorrow.”
“Then they’ve likely already moved him back to a cell in the Matheson Courthouse,” Billy said.
Richard stood up and offered his hand to the boy. “Then let’s go.”
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.