The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 2.46: The Liminal Curtain

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.

June 14, 9:30 am

Michelle shivered as she looked out at the dark, steady rain. She was making tea at the stove in Keith’s kitchen, and she could see him outside on the back porch. The coming of the rain after so many warm days was a relief, but she never liked how a grim and rainy day like this sucked the color out of everything. Not only was the sky gray, but the mist that had been thrown up by the rain on the hot city obscured everything, including the trees in the backyard. The tendrils of it snaked across the grass, and the world seemed unnaturally calm and quiet.

She had draped a blanket across Keith’s shoulders earlier, and even though it wasn’t cold by any stretch of the imagination, he had pulled it up close to his chin. Pil sat to Keith’s left, his big bare feet on the low table that sat between the porch chairs. They were both sheltered from the rain by the porch roof, but the overhang of it only made the day seem even gloomier.

The teapot sang, and Michelle poured three cups of tea. Earl Grey for her and Pil, and a spiced Chai for Keith.

By now she should have been back home. The plan this morning was to make Keith his breakfast, and then take him to work. But he’d never gotten that far. Shortly after breakfast, he had fallen into a strange depression, and although he hadn’t yet descended into tears, she could tell that he was struggling against them. And to her surprise, when she suggested he skip out on returning to work, he had quickly agreed. She had called his boss and told her that he needed some more time. She was very understanding.

I almost wish he’d gone, she thought. I don’t know if sitting at home on a dark and rainy day is any better for him than being at work. At least the library is bright and cheerful.

As she carried the three cups out onto the porch, she could hear the sky rumbling. It was a deep and oppressive growl that came from everywhere. It wasn’t loud, but it was constant, and it didn’t help raise anyone’s spirits.

“Here is the tea!” she said, far more brightly than she felt.

“Thanks Babe,” Pil said, taking his cup. “A good cup of tea on a dreary day like this might be just what we need.”

Keith shivered as he reached for his cup. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m being such a downer. I really wanted to go back to work today. I’m sick and tired of feeling like crap.”

Pil reached over and squeezed Keith’s forearm. “It’s okay, Beastlet. Nobody’s in a hurry.” He thought for a minute, then snapped his fingers. “Hey, what do you say to a movie? We could get out of this gloom and go see something light. I suggest a comedy, and the more mindless, the better. What do you think?”

Michelle settled back into her seat with the cup. The rain was falling harder now, and the sky had grown thicker and lower, even since this morning. “With as crazy as this city feels, I’m not sure I want to be in a movie theater,” she said. “Not after what happened last week.”

Keith sipped his cup loudly. “Yeah, I kind of agree. I think staying close to home is a better idea.” He looked up, and caught Michelle’s eye. “But you two really don’t need to stay here. I’m fine now. I just want to hibernate and lick my wounds.”

She wasn’t sure it was a good idea to ask for any details, but on the other hand, she didn’t want to pretend that everything was okay when it clearly wasn’t.

“Pea, do you have any idea what happened this morning? When you came downstairs, I thought you were feeling a lot better.”

Keith stared into his cup and took a long time before he spoke.

“I don’t really know, honey. If I told you, you might think I’m crazy.”

Pil turned his head slightly. “You know we’d never think that, K. With what you’ve gone through, it’s okay to have some roller coaster emotions. And you can always tell us.”

“We’re not going to judge,” Michelle said. “We just want to help.”

With a sigh, Keith finally looked up from his tea.

“It’s just that for the last week or so, I can’t shake the feeling that Richard is here, somewhere. I don’t mean here physically. I know he’s dead, but there is this sense of him that’s sometimes so strong that it’s hard to shake. I guess the best way to describe it is that if I were to close my eyes and let myself, I could almost forget about what happened. I could almost… forget about that night. I could convince myself that he was just in the other room, or that he was on his way home from work. And the sick thing is, I think I even want to let myself believe that.”

“You miss him, is all.” Michelle said, after an uncomfortable pause.

“It’s more than that. It scares me, because I worry that my mind is… on some knife edge. That I could easily allow myself to fall into some kind of fantasy world, and that if I let that happen, I don’t know if I’d ever find my way out.”

Michelle looked at Pil, and his face showed that he was feeling completely out of his depth with Keith’s emotional struggles. The look on his face was almost pleading for her to say something, because he had no idea what came next.

Luckily, Keith didn’t seem to need anyone to say anything at that moment, because he continued.

“For days now, I’ve had the feeling that Richard was lying in bed with me, at night. In fact, after all those nights of not being able to sleep at all, now I almost long for bedtime, because I know I’m going to have the comfort of feeling his presence.” He looked at them, and Michelle thought she saw a hunger in his eyes. “There have been nights where I didn’t feel it. But then last night, I sensed him all over again, and stronger than ever. And I slept like a baby until sometime early this morning.”

“What happened then?”

“Well, I woke up, and although I could still sense him, it was like he was moving away. It was like seeing someone through the back window of a departing car. I could still see him, and I could reach out to him, but with every second, he got further and further away. When I woke up, I still had the glow of his presence with me, but as the morning went on, I started to lose it—as if he was fading away. As crazy as it sounds, it was almost as if Richard had stopped thinking about me, wherever he was. And finally, just after breakfast, it seemed like he wasn’t there at all.”

“Are you feeling better now?” Pil asked, and Michelle realized that he had placed his hand on Keith’s arm at some point in the past few minutes. She watched as he stroked her friend’s forearm, although she wasn’t sure that Keith was even aware of the touch.

Keith’s voice cracked. “No. I’m not really feeling any better. I still feel like he’s not here anymore. Not like he was.”

“Honey, this may be a good sign,” Michelle said, easing down on the wicker seat next to him. “As painful as it is, maybe it’s best that you’re no longer imagining Richard is here. That sounds like healing to me. Like acceptance.”

Keith looked at her, and his eyes were as clear as she ever remembered seeing them. There were no tears there, no desperation. He actually looked calmer and clearer than he had since the night of the murder.

“That’s the thing, Michelle. It doesn’t feel like I’m ‘imagining’ that Richard was here. Or that it’s just grief. It felt as real as anything tangible in my life. I couldn’t see him, and I couldn’t hear him, and I couldn’t touch him—but I felt as sure that he was there as I am that you’re sitting here now.”

“But only while you’re sleeping.” Michelle said, and instantly regretted it. That had to sound like doubt to Keith, and maybe what he needed right now was someone to just listen and believe.

“Mostly when I’m sleeping. But not only,” Keith said, his eyes on the mug of tea.

Michelle wasn’t sure what to say to that, so she just squeezed his hand and allowed the conversation to lag. For the next few minutes, they sat in silence, sipping their tea and watching the rain. The rumbling was steady now, and the rain was light, but constant. It ran off the roof of the porch in drizzles, falling into the bed of hydrangeas below, and splashing on the five wooden steps that led down into the backyard. She could barely see the pair of crab apple trees through the mist. On most summer days, they provided some welcome shade. But today, they dripped and shimmered like specters in the rain.

Keith finally snuggled in next to Michelle, and she put an arm around him. They had both finished their tea, and Pil was scrolling through something on his cell phone. Her mind had begun to drift, when Pil suddenly leaned forward and took their cups.

“Honey, can you help me in the kitchen for a second? Maybe we can get those breakfast dishes done before we decide what we want to do with the rest of the day.”

Keith extricated himself from under Michelle’s arm and wrapped himself more tightly in the blanket. “I can help,” he said, preparing to get up.

“No, Pea, you just relax,” Michelle said, as she rose. “You’re all bundled up like a papoose. We’ll be back in a second.”

As she closed the door behind her, Michelle looked at her husband.

“Well, that wasn’t particularly subtle,” she said.

“What?” Pil said.

“That you wanted to talk to me about something. It was obvious.”

“Do you think Keith noticed?”

She looked out at her friend, who was still just staring into the backyard. His back was to them now, so his expression was unreadable. “I don’t think so. I think he’s just taking today minute by minute.” She looked at her husband. “What did you need to tell me?”

“Just this,” he said, handing her his phone.

Both she and Pil had signed up for e-mail bulletins from the city, which were usually just innocuous things like street closures and such. But this one was much more ominous. The headline read “Public Asked to be on the Alert for Escaped Detainee.” Michelle only had to read the first paragraph to know why Pil looked so pale.

“Howard Gunderson escaped? What the fuck?”

“Yeah, I know. It’s crazy. But I guess he walked out of the Detention Center this morning.”

“How is that possible?”

“It shouldn’t be. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Michelle continued reading the article on Pil’s phone while he rinsed out the coffee cup, and true to his word, washed the breakfast dishes that were lingering in the sink.

Just as she was finishing the e-mail, Keith’s house phone began to ring in the living room. Pil left Michelle holding his phone and walked out of the kitchen to pick up the incoming call.

I don’t know if we should even tell Keith about this, Michelle thought, as she looked out the kitchen window and onto the porch.

To her surprise, Keith was no longer sitting where they had left him. She felt a stab of panic rush through her, but then she realized that he had just stood up, and was now standing at the edge of the porch, looking out into the rain. The thick blanket was still around his shoulders. But through the haze she thought she saw… No, that couldn’t be… It seemed that Keith was actually speaking to someone in the backyard. She heard the soft buzz of his voice through the closed window.

Who would be in the backyard? she wondered.

Later, she didn’t even remember putting Pil’s phone on the table, or crossing to the door. When she opened it, it was like Keith didn’t hear her at all, but she could now hear the soft buzz of his voice more clearly. And another voice. Quiet, and deeper, but insistent, desperate. From where she was standing, she couldn’t see the other person, but as she stepped out onto the porch, Keith turned to her. There was a strange, almost beatific look on his face, and he held his hands out at his waist, palms toward her. The blanket draped over him and made him look almost like a saint.

“Don’t do anything,” Keith said, in a strange, flat voice. “Don’t say anything…”

“Keith, who are you talking to?” Michelle said, as she tried to look over his shoulder. But already, she thought she knew.

“Don’t do anything,” Keith repeated. “Don’t call the police. Don’t panic. It’s okay.”

Howard Gunderson took a step to the left, and looked at Michelle. He was on the bottom step, and the rain was cascading off the roof and onto him in waves. He stood there, seemingly unaware of the water pouring down on his shoulders. It streamed over his face and dripped off his aquiline nose and plastered his blond hair to his head. Instantly she recognized the orange prison-issue pants that he was wearing.

Her phone was on the table to her left, next to her chair. She had left Pil’s phone on the kitchen counter. She glanced quickly at the phone and began to move toward it. But Keith was far too fast for her. He took the two steps to her and took her wrist in his hand. As he locked his gaze on her, she knew her eyes were expressing her panic. But there was a strange, dreamy look on Keith’s face. He looked almost happy, and his grip was just shy of causing her pain. Whatever she saw in his face caused her to freeze, and all thoughts of going for her phone left her.

Gently, Keith pulled and led her the two steps to the edge of the porch. Howard Gunderson was standing below them, behind the liminal curtain of water that divided the dry porch from the gray world beyond. And now she could see that he was shivering. Any fear she may have had of this boy drained away. He looked so vulnerable, so terrified, and had such a desperate expression on his face, that she was instantly transfixed.

“I’m sorry, Howard,” Keith said, in a voice as calm and clear as Michelle had ever heard. “I’m sorry we were interrupted. This is my friend Michelle. Anything you want to say, you can say to her too.”

“I…” Howard Gunderson started, and then appeared to think better of what he had been about to say. But his expression cleared, and he stood up taller, mustering his strength. “Keith, I need you to know that Richard loves you very much, and he wants you to be safe.” The boy was trembling harder now. Michelle could see he was far more terrified of them than they were of him. And yet something powerful had driven him here. Perhaps he had even escaped from prison just so he could give Keith this message. She didn’t speak, but just watched the boy intently.

“I need you to know that you’re in danger,” he said. “Something is going to happen here. In this city. Something really bad. And you need to leave.”

“Did Richard want you to tell me that?” Keith asked.

What? Had Richard asked him? Was Keith losing it, after all?

“No. He… He doesn’t know I’m here.”

“He’s dead,” Michelle managed to say. But her voice was so quiet she could barely hear it, and wasn’t sure if Gunderson heard it at all.

“But you need to leave Salt Lake. Right now. Get somewhere safe and don’t come back to Utah. Ever. It will never be safe for you here.” The boy wiped the water from his eyes and continued. “Something horrible is coming, and that’s all I can tell you.”

“Howard, why are you here?” Keith asked, his voice as calm and soft as a lover’s whisper.

“I’m not sure…” the boy stammered. “But I think I owe you at least this warning. Maybe as a way to make up to Richard for what we did to him.”

We? Michelle thought. The fact that the boy used that word sent a chill from her shoulders to her feet, and she felt herself wobbling, like she might collapse.

Keith didn’t speak, but there was a glow coming off of him now. As if something incredibly important had been confirmed in his mind, and it gave him a strength that he had desperately needed.

“I need to go,” Gunderson said. “I’m sure you know they’re looking for me. But please… do what I told you. Justin will find his way back to you somehow if you don’t. He’ll hurt you. He’ll kill you, if he can.”

Justin? That name sounds familiar, Michelle thought, but I don’t think I know any Justin…

Keith was suddenly very alert. “Wait, Justin? Are you talking about Justin Kimball? The boy Richard had… feelings for before he met me?”

“I don’t know. I think so. I just know his name is Justin, and he hates Richard very, very much. It’s too complicated to explain, and I don’t know enough to even try. Just… please believe me. You’re not safe here. Get out of this city while you can.”

Howard had crossed his arms over his chest now, and his shivering was getting worse. Michelle felt that the divide between the dry porch where she and Keith stood, and the soaking rain that was descending on Howard Gunderson, was as wide as the continent. Despite the fact that she could easily reach out a hand and touch the boy if she wanted to.

All at once, she felt incredibly moved by the sight of Howard. He seemed confused and frantic and terrified, but there was also absolute conviction in his voice. And there was something powerfully strange in what he was saying. If he was mad, then there was something sacred in his madness.

Barely understanding why she did it, Michelle stepped off the porch and into the rain. The curtain of water seemed to part to let her pass, but then the cool rain was all over her, soaking her instantly. Standing on the step above Howard Gunderson, she was only a couple inches taller than the shivering boy. She raised her hands, and took both of his, that were clasped together across his elbows. She extricated them, and then, feeling more motherly than she had ever felt in her life, she pulled the boy’s head down and against her shoulder. Almost instantly, and gratefully, the boy wrapped his arms around her. She cradled his head against her shoulder, and stroked his wet hair, as the rain pummeled them both.

“Howard, you have to turn yourself in,” she said quietly to the boy, expecting him to pull away. But instead, he grasped her more tightly.

“I can’t…” he said, his tears hitching in his throat. “Justin has made me do… something horrible. I can’t go back now.”

Michelle didn’t know what else to say, so she just held the boy, who was crying now almost uncontrollably, clinging to her as if she was his lifeline.

“I miss my mom,” he whimpered into her shoulder. “I miss her so much. And I’m so, so sorry. I’m sorry for everything. It wasn’t my fault, and I didn’t do it. But I’m so, so sorry…”

Michelle was only vaguely aware that Keith was standing behind her. He didn’t reach out to the pair, and he didn’t touch them. But she knew that he could hear every word of what Howard was stammering.

And then it was not only Keith that she felt behind her. It was also Pil.

Her husband had come out of the house, and was standing off to the side, staring at the tableau before him. Keith stood dry on the edge of the porch, and his wife was standing in the rain, holding the boy as he cried. For an instant Michelle was terrified that Pil would pounce on the boy, the way she remembered him jumping between them in the hearing room. She squinted her eyes shut, knowing that if Pil decided to rip this boy out of her embrace, there would be nothing she could do about it. So she just squeezed her eyes and waited.

But although she could feel her husband’s eyes on her. He didn’t move. He didn’t rush them. He just stood and stared. She heard Keith say, “It’s okay, Pil. Everything is okay.” His voice sounded almost angelic.

Eventually, Howard’s tears slowed, and he extricated himself from her embrace. Looking back over her shoulder, Michelle saw the two men she loved more than anything in the world. Keith was leaning into Pil, and had grasped both his hands. The sight was somehow beautiful in her eyes, and she knew everything would be okay.

Pil’s face was strange. He was confused, and he was terrified. But he was also entranced by whatever magic was enfolding his wife and his friend—and this strange boy who had walked out of the rain.

Still holding both of Howard’s hands, Michelle turned to Pil.

“Was that Detective Grayson on the phone?” she asked

“Yes,” Pil said, after a pause.

“Is she on her way here?”

Pil swallowed hard, clearly struggling to find his voice. “Yes.”

Howard suddenly took two steps back, releasing Michelle’s hands. Even at just two steps, his face was instantly obscured by the fog and the falling rain. “Did she tell you… What happened? At the jail.”

“No,” Pil said, his voice steadier now. “She just said that you had escaped, and that she thought we should know. She said she thought it was possible you’d come here.”

“What happened at the jail,” Howard stammered. “It wasn’t me.” He looked at Keith. “And I didn’t kill your… your boyfriend. It wasn’t me. It was never me.”

Michelle could barely believe the words that came out of her mouth. But at the same time, she knew instinctively that it was the right thing. She had never known anything as clearly in her life as she knew it at that moment.

“Howard, you have to go,” she said. “You need to be gone before the Detective gets here.”

“Michelle, don’t,” Pil said, but Michelle barely heard him.

“You need to run. Get somewhere safe.”

“There isn’t anywhere safe,” Howard said, with deep misery. “I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Suddenly, Keith was moving. He dropped Pil’s hands and called back over his shoulder as the blanket fell to the porch, “Wait here!”

Keith ran into the house. The trio waited in silence, and then Pil reached a hand out to Michelle. It hovered there, just on the dry side of the cascading water. She looked between the two men, as if not sure what she should do, but then reached out for Pil’s hand. He helped her back to the dry porch, where she stood dripping. Pil pulled her against him, soaking his shirt in the process. And through it all, both of them kept their eyes locked on Howard Gunderson. Michelle wondered how much of the water streaming down his face was coming from his eyes, but to a large extent, he appeared to be past the crying spell. He looked like a little boy to her. So young, and so vulnerable.

Keith came back out with a white plastic laundry basket. He dumped it on the porch, and quickly picked out what looked to be a black t-shirt, a zip-up hoodie, jeans, and socks. Michelle recognized them all as Richard’s clothes. They’ll be baggy on him, she thought. But it will be much better than what he’s wearing.

Suddenly she was in the house, where she grabbed a pair of Richard’s high-top red tennis shoes from the shoe rack by the door. Seized with inspiration, she also grabbed two boxes of granola bars from the kitchen. When she came back, Keith was stuffing the whole bundle of clothes into a plastic grocery bag. She handed him the shoes and food, and he added them to the bag.

Keith looked down, and in a sudden fit of inspiration, he took off his own belt. It too would be far too big for Howard, but at least it could hold up the pants they had given him. He stuffed the belt into the bag and held the whole bundle out to Howard.

Michelle saw that moment, like it was frozen in time. She and Pil were standing together, while Keith was on the edge of the porch. His hand extended out and into the rain, as if he was pushing it through a portal, reaching into some netherworld where he didn’t belong. On this side was dryness and peace and safety. On the other side was darkness and the unknown. A wet world of fear and decay.

Howard stepped forward and took the bag. His hand touched Keith’s for an incredibly brief instant, and the look on his wet face was one of almost worshipful gratitude.

Michelle knew that whatever happened from this moment forward, everything had changed. And yet, they had done the right thing. If what Howard said was true, and disaster was lurking around the corner, maybe what they had just done would help hold it back, if only for a little while.

“You need to go,” Michelle said.

“We all need to go,” Howard said, as he gave Keith one last sorrowful glance. “Keith I’m sorry. If you ever talk to my mother, tell her I love her.”

He disappeared into the rain.

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.

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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 https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. 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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