June 14, 5:45 am
Keith awoke to the roar of a lion.
In his dream the world had gone dark and gray, and the earth was about to come apart at the seams. He was alone. And he was deaf, and he was blind. He knew he was in his room, even in his own bed, but nothing felt right. The texture of the blanket was hard and unyielding, and the bed seemed frozen into a permanent trough where his body lay. He had called out for Richard, but his voice made no sound. He reached out a hand for him, and he wasn’t there. Then—still under the stifling weight of his dream—he remembered it all.
Richard was dead. He was murdered and gone, and he’d never be coming back.
It was as if reality was a frayed old hammock that could no longer hold his weight. As if Richard’s death was the first thread that had been pulled that would ultimately unravel the entire universe. As Richard had died, he had pulled that tiny thread with him into the darkness, and now all that remained was to watch it all unravel. Then would come the falling forever into the emptiness below.
But when the lion roared, it was like a savior’s trumpet! He couldn’t help but think of Aslan, the lion who represented Jesus in the C. S. Lewis books. The roar was terrible, and it was a roar of vengeance against evil. It was also a roar that demanded justice and felt like it could somehow mend the torn fabric of the universe.
Keith awoke with a start, and stared into the dark bedroom, somehow expecting to hear that roar again. But it never came. There was a hint of light that he could see in the sky through the window, but it looked gray and cold outside. He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, as the bleak reality of his life poured back over him. It was a reality that was even darker than his dreams, and he wished he could slide back into them and escape. But he was now fully awake.
He crawled out from under the heavy blanket, and naked, he made his way to the window. He could hear his wide feet making soft sounds against the carpet, but at least it now felt soft against his toes, and not like the concrete texture that had filled his nightmares. Looking out, he saw that the sky was dark and ominous. It was one of those days they often got in Salt Lake City, where the sky stayed a mottled gray, with the sun nowhere to be seen. It was going to be a cool and dreary day, and most likely there would be rain soon. He sighed, thinking that the weather outside matched his weather inside, almost perfectly.
Groaning, he remembered that today was the day that he had agreed to return to work, after his aborted attempt a week earlier. He wasn’t sure that taking that extra week had really been wise, or if it had done him any good. He was actually feeling less able to face the library today than he had last week. Shivering, he pulled on a hoodie and a pair of sweatpants he had discarded the night before, and crawled back into bed.
As he lay there, it startled him to hear noises from below. He quickly realized that it was Michelle and Pil, talking in hushed voices, so as not to wake him up. And now that he was concentrating, he could even smell the coffee brewing, and the hear the bacon frying.
They’ve come over to make me breakfast before my first day back at work, he realized. And just the thought of how much care and devotion that small act showed was enough to bring the tears back to his eyes. And yet, even in the knowledge of how much his friends loved him, he couldn’t help but feel bereft and alone. So rather than leaving the bed and going downstairs, or even just getting up to take a shower, he just stayed there, staring at the ceiling.
I’m spiraling down, he thought. At least, I feel like I am. There are times when everything seems okay. But then there are times, like now, when I can barely tolerate having my eyes open.
“Keith, honey?” Michelle said softly, standing in the doorway. He hadn’t even heard her come up the stairs. But crossing to the window earlier must have alerted her he was awake.
As she looked at him in the bed, he knew it was obvious that he wasn’t feeling prepared to face the day. But, bless her soul, she still gave him one of her best smiles.
“Good morning, Pea. How are you feeling about going back today?”
He forced a smile that he hoped equaled hers. “Okay, I guess,” he lied. “It should be a fairly quiet day. Probably a good day for me to make my grand re-entrance.”
“Either that,” Michelle said with a giggle. “Or we could just stay here.” She quickly crossed to the bed, and crawled under the covers with him, pulling the blanket up to her chin. “I think a day in bed watching episodes of the Golden Girls would be exactly what you and I need. What do you say?”
The face she made was so goofy that Keith couldn’t help but laugh. “Sure. It would be like all those days in my senior year, before you went on your mission. When we’d buy a bag of gummy bears and lock ourselves in your room all day.”
She laughed. “Remember how my mom was so sure we were up to something? When you finally came out, I think she was disappointed. I guess she was hoping for some little Woos for grandkids.”
“Mickey Woo and Daisy Woo!” they said together in unison, remembering the names they’d jokingly made up for their theoretical offspring, many years ago.
“You would have been a wonderful mother,” Michelle said.
“And you’d have been the best Daddy Mickey and Daisy could ever hope for.” Keith added, before they both burst out laughing. Keith raised his arm, and Michelle snuggled in against him, the way they had snuggled back in high school.
When they stopped giggling, Michelle was strangely quiet for a minute, biting absently on a fingernail. And Keith looked at the top of her head, lying cradled on his chest. He heard the toaster pop downstairs, and the sound of Pil putting a plate on the counter.
“Are you sure you’re ready to go back?” Michelle asked.
“I think I have to,” he said after a pause. “I need to break out of this spiral I’m in.” She put a hand around his chest and pulled him tightly against her. “I had terrible dreams last night. If I don’t get back to some kind of normal life, I’m afraid things are only going to get worse.”
“I understand that,” Michelle said. And Keith believed that she probably did.
He sighed, and his gaze fell across the window. It was still gray outside, but the even glow of the sky had finally dispelled most of the morning shadows. As he watched, the first few drops of rain splattered against the window.
“It’s starting slow, but I think it’s going to rain hard today. How about if we drive you up to the University?”
“That’s sweet. And yeah, that would be great.” He took in a deep breath, and when he let it out, he pulled the cover up over both their heads. “Although all I really want to do is stay here in bed all day. Getting up seems a bit harder every morning. Why did I agree to go back to work?”
Under the covers, she punched him lightly in the side. “You said it yourself. It’s good for you. Normal life, and all that.”
“I know. I just… I hope it gets easier.”
Michelle pulled the covers back off their faces and leaned up on her elbow. She put a hand on Keith’s chest and looked into his eyes. “Really? It’s not getting any easier at all?”
“I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. It’s like…” He stopped, not having any idea how he could describe what he was feeling.
“Go on, honey. Tell me.”
“I wish I could. I guess it’s like I’m sinking slowly into something. Something ugly. I don’t know if it’s obsession over Richard’s death, or something else. It almost feels like a fantasy world or something.”
“I think that’s grief. Everything feels weird for a while,” Michelle said, her chin on his chest.
“The truth is, that I feel less accepting of Richard’s death today than I did the day after it happened. No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s not really gone. That he’s still here with me. I keep expecting to look across the room and see his shadow in the bathroom. Or hear his keyboard clicking from the office across the hall. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you how often I just lay here in the dark, listening. Expecting to hear him. It feels almost surprising when I don’t.”
“I think that’s probably normal, honey,” Michelle said, leaning her head back down onto his chest. “It’s just what you feel after something like this.”
“It doesn’t feel normal,” Keith said, and he thought he felt Michelle shiver slightly against him. That slight shiver told him she really didn’t think it was normal either. “Did I tell you that sometimes I think I can smell him? Not just here in the bed, but everywhere. Even when we’re out. It’s subtle, but when I catch that scent it almost knocks my knees out from under me. The feeling comes and goes, but it’s getting stronger all the time.”
“Keith, you’ve got to be gentler with yourself. This is a process.”
He knew she was trying to be kind, but her reassurances felt hollow. “I didn’t tell you, but the day we were out getting my suit for the funeral, I was almost certain that Richard was there, helping me to try on the coats. Even brushing the lint off my shoulder. I couldn’t see him, of course, but the sense of him was so real…”
Michelle didn’t reply, but he could tell she was listening intently.
“But then that feeling will suddenly be gone, and when that happens, all I want to do is sleep. Because in my dreams, Richard is almost always there. I can even feel him touching me or holding my hand. It’s only when I’m sleeping now that I really feel content, and at peace. When I wake up, the entire weight of the world seems to be waiting for me. And sometimes it feels like it’s going to crush me.”
Michelle waited for a moment, as if she wanted to be sure that he was finished. “I know it’s scary and upsetting, Pea. But I really do think it’s normal.”
He looked at the top of her head, and kissed her gently there. “Is it though? Does every grieving widow or widower feel like the person who died isn’t really gone? I mean, intellectually, I can understand why that might be true. But it feels so damn real.”
His friend detached herself from underneath his arm and came to a cross-legged sitting position on the bed. She looked right into his eyes as she spoke. “Honey, I’m kind of at a loss to know what to say. I know I keep telling you it’s all normal, but hell, what is ‘normal’ anyway? After what you went through…”
“What we went through,” Keith said, taking her hand.
“After what we went through, I don’t think there is such a thing as normal. What happened was so fucked up that there aren’t words to describe it. I think all we can do is be patient and kind to ourselves.” Keith felt like he wanted to sink back under the covers, and he was sure Michelle could sense it. “Hey, and we have each other. I’m a good listener. And I think my job right now is just to keep reminding you that eventually, yeah, things are going to get better. Remember, it’s only been a couple weeks. We just have to be patient.”
“I’m trying,” Keith said, not sounding particularly convincing, even to himself.
“And I’ve been meaning to ask,” Michelle said, squeezing his hand. “Do you know if they have counseling services at the University? Somebody you could talk to that would have a professional opinion?”
“Yeah, they do. I’ve been thinking about calling them.”
“Detective Grayson also told me about a support group for survivors of violence. If you ever wanted to give that a try, I’d go with you. After all, you aren’t the first person to go through this kind of thing. It might do you good to be with some other people that went through it and came out the other side.”
Keith couldn’t help but think of how many such people there would be now. After the massacre at the theatre, and all the other crazy stuff that had been on the news lately. Michelle was right, he certainly wasn’t alone in surviving tragedy.
“I’ll think about it. But I’m not sure anybody has gone through something exactly like this. Something tells me that what happened with Richard is unlike anything that’s ever happened to anybody.”
“I’m sure everybody in those groups felt the same way, at one time.” Michelle paused before kissing the back of Keith’s hand. “I’m sure everybody who has lost someone they love feels that way.”
Keith looked in the face of his friend and was amazed by the amount of strength he saw there. She and Pil had been there for him through this whole thing in a way that nobody had a right to expect of their friends. He was amazingly lucky to have them both in his life.
“Why don’t you come downstairs,” Michelle said, forcing a smile. “Pil’s making a big breakfast. We don’t want to send you back to work without the right fuel.”
Keith forced a smile. “I’ll be down in a few minutes. I think I just need to write a bit first. Can you put the breakfast on hold for a half hour?”
She looked at the clock. “As long as you don’t take forever in the bathroom, you should have time.” She leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “See you downstairs.” As she started down the stairs, he heard her yell back over her shoulder. “Better get your round little butt moving!”
He was still lying in bed when he heard Pil’s voice. “How’s our boy?” he asked.
Michelle had been so strong and supportive. And Pil… Well, Keith had to face something he had been thinking, but afraid to admit, even to himself. For the last several days, it had been Pil’s eyes and his touch that he had craved. He was grateful that Michelle had been there for him, and he loved her deeply. But he felt guilty that part of him had wished that Pil had been the one to appear at his door this morning.
And been the one to crawl into my bed.
With Michelle, it had always been his job to hold her, and let her put her head on his chest. But what he really longed for right now was to be held that way—by Pil. He wanted to feel the big man’s arms around him. He wouldn’t have to speak. He wouldn’t have to talk him through the grief the way Michelle did. All he would need to do was to hold him.
The thought of it sent a rush of longing through Keith, and he immediately felt guilty about it. Although he imagined if anybody in the world would understand that longing he had inside, it would be Richard.
Still, he felt guilty anyway. He gently touched the place where Michelle had been lying. The place where Richard had slept next to him for more than a decade. The place where they had made love the day before he had been killed.
The rain outside fell harder.
He picked up his notebook and wrote.
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.