June 14, 11:08 am
High in the clock tower of the City and County building, Tuilla prepared Richard to face his destiny.
For close to an hour after Billy left, Richard peppered Tuilla with questions. He wanted to know why he had been chosen to come back, when the vast majority of the dead did not. He wanted to know what had created the rift they called the Hereafter, and whether it was the only such rift that existed. If not, where were the others? If it was, then why? Why this place among all others? And why couldn’t they leave? Why was her dead husband so pissed off at this city, and how did he get the power to be so destructive? Why was Richard uniquely the one that she believed could fight him?
The questions went on and on, and the answers from the old woman were so unsatisfactory that Richard felt his frustration with her growing by the minute. He soon realized that she simply didn’t know the answers to most of the things that he asked. And the few times he sensed that she knew, she seemed unwilling to give him more than an evasive, cursory answer.
And yet, she did not shut him down. She clearly wanted him to get it all out of his system, and only when he ran out of questions did she smile and ask, “Can we begin now?”
He had to resist the impulse to snap at her. But he also felt so exhausted mentally and emotionally from the failed interrogation, that the idea of letting her guide whatever was supposed to happen next sounded very attractive.
“Fine,” he sighed. “What do you want me to do?”
Richard was sitting on a bench at the edge of the clock tower’s observation deck—one where tourists could rest after climbing all those steps. Tuilla now knelt in front of him, and just looking at her made Richard’s tense body relax. Her eyes were as dark as pools of India ink, and as he gazed into them, his peripheral vision narrowed to where those eyes were all that he could see.
“Concentrate on your breathing,” she said. “Feel where you can most easily feel the breath going in and out of your body, and concentrate on that spot.”
“That would be fine and dandy, but as you know, I don’t have a body, and I don’t have breath.”
“How do you know you don’t?”
“Well, maybe because I’m dead?”
Richard realized he was just being argumentative for argument’s sake, but he couldn’t stop himself. He also couldn’t look away from Tuilla’s dark eyes.
“Billy said he thinks our bodies are just an illusion our minds have created,” he said, “and I think he’s right.”
“Put your hand up to your face,” Tuilla said, “and blow on it. Now, do you feel that?”
“Yeah, I feel it, but it’s got to be just part of the illusion. I’m not really here. At least, not physically. Nobody can see me, and nothing I touch moves. I can’t believe this is really a body. I can’t believe these are clothes. And I can’t believe I’m really breathing.”
“Despite the evidence to the contrary, you mean?”
“That’s right,” he said, smirking, “despite the evidence to the contrary.”
“That’s a pretty strange conclusion to come to, for a man as logical as you, isn’t it?”
Richard felt himself shrug. Now I really am just being a shit, he thought.
“You’ve told me you can feel your breath on your hand. When you touch your face, it feels just the like the face you touched when you were alive. Yes?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s real. This whole thing, this whole illusion that we’re here… It simply can’t be true. We’re dead. We’re ghosts. And no matter how real our bodies seem, it can’t be anything but an illusion.”
“You sound like a mystic. You’re a smart guy, Richard. You must know that every holy man and philosopher from the beginning of time has tried to figure out the same philosophical questions. ‘How do I know I’m real?’ ‘How do I know that what my senses reveal to me is what the world is really like? How can I know that it’s not all an illusion?’”
“And what did they decide?”
“Lots of different things,” she said, placing a gentle hand on his knee. “‘I think, therefore I am,’ and all that. But in the end, the wise ones all came to the same conclusion: That it really doesn’t matter.”
Richard shook his head and purposefully broke eye contact with the old woman. His head immediately cleared, and with it, his anger returned.
“How can it not matter? It’s the only thing that does matter. How can we make any sense at all out of what’s happening to us if we can’t figure out for sure if we even exist?” He gestured around the clock tower. “What if all of this is just shadow puppets and illusion—a fever dream I’m having in the last seconds of my brain’s electrical activity? If that’s the case, then what’s the point of even bothering to try and understand it?”
“You don’t really strike me as a nihilist, Richard,” Tuilla said, sounding vaguely amused. “I don’t think you’re ready to throw in the towel just yet. After all, there are still things you want to do. There are still people you love, and people you want to help. And in the light of those things, a philosophical debate as to the nature of our existence is fairly moot, is it not? What matters is that we’re here. We’re seeing and observing and remembering everything we see. We exist because we have work to do. We exist because we’re not yet done.”
“That’s touchy-feely new age bullshit,” Richard snapped. “I’ve never had much tolerance for it.”
The old woman just smiled. “I don’t need you to have tolerance for it, or understand it. I just need you to trust me. Can you do that? Not forever. Just for now.”
Richard took a deep breath. It was harder for him to let go of his preconceived notions than he expected. It seemed harder, now that he was dead, than it ever was when he was alive. But he also knew that if he had any hope of being able to save Keith, he had to put his trust in this old woman. If there was a key to all this, she had it.
“Okay.” he sighed. “What do you want me to do?”
What followed over the next hour felt like a lot of the old encounter groups he had participated in as a student at NYU, or the trust building exercises he’d had with colleagues at the University—lots of breathing and relaxation, and lots of concentrating on the sound of her voice, as she talked him into what she clearly thought would be a meditative state. But to his surprise, it was working. When he was alive, he’d resisted such loss of control and sabotaged it at every turn. But now, something had changed. And as the old woman spoke, much of the doubt and the resistance he had been feeling drained away, as he just concentrated on her voice, and on the dark pools of her eyes.
Eventually, he felt like he was floating in a lake of warm water, somewhere outside his body. And she seemed ready to begin what she had been driving toward.
“Now I want you to think, Richard,” she said, “what about your experience of returning has been the most striking? What has seemed the most unusual?”
It was a tough question. It was all so foreign, so confusing. Finally, he said, “I guess the fact that everything feels so strange. Like frozen concrete.”
That answer was clearly not what she was looking for. “Yes. And what else?”
“Colors. They seem strange, like pastels. Sounds too. They seem more like something you’d experience in a dream. So real, they’re unreal, I guess.”
“That’s very good. And what else?”
He paused for a moment, before he latched onto the one thing that had seemed the most strange in this entire experience. “The fact that I can sense where Keith is. It’s a tug in my forehead. If I concentrate on it, I can always tell what direction he is in, and how far.”
“That’s excellent, Richard. Now keep your eyes closed, and tell me, can you feel that tug, as you call it, right now?”
“Yes. It’s always there.”
“Good. Now close your eyes and pay attention to it. I don’t want you to do anything about it, but I want you to feel it. Rather than it being in the background of your mind, or something that exists just in your forehead, I want you to really tune in to it. Let it absorb your consciousness.”
With his eyes closed, Richard let that glow in his forehead rise. He was facing north, and he could sense Keith directly in front of him, and slightly to his right. That made sense. He would be at home, and that was the right direction.
“Are you tuned into it?”
“Now let that feeling expand. It should be easy. It’s wanted to, ever since you first experienced it.”
“Did you feel that tug toward George?” Richard asked.
“Don’t ask questions now, Richard. Just concentrate. What do you feel?”
“It’s more what I see. I’m starting to see the tug as… a color.”
“Is it yellow?”
“Yes, exactly! It’s a golden yellow, like sunlight, or… like a dandelion. In fact, it even seems to have petals spreading out from the center.”
He heard the old woman gasp, as if Richard had taken a step forward she had not expected. “Yes, Richard. That’s very good. Now, concentrate on that yellow flower and let it grow in size. Let it encompass your whole body. Tell me when it has.”
It took a minute, but soon, Richard was able to feel the color throughout his entire body. The sensation was comforting and pleasant. No longer was it just a tug toward Keith. Now it was a warm glow that symbolized not just his lover, but also his connection to everyone and every living thing. It was as if Keith had only been the doorway to that connection—the hole in the fence through which he could see everything, if he tried.
“It’s like the petals of the flower are reaching out. Trying to go beyond my body.” Richard squeezed his eyes, although he was dying to open them and see if the glow looked as real as it felt right now.
“Don’t open your eyes.” Tuilla said, as if she was reading his thoughts.
“It feels like it wants to spread from my body,” Richard repeated. “Like it wants to…” His words failed him.
“Find a word, Richard.”
“Like it wants to expand. To illuminate. Or maybe to shine.” He instantly pictured Scatman Crothers from The Shining, and had to quench the vision before it extinguished the yellow glow.
“Excellent. I want you to let it radiate out from your body. Keep your eyes closed, but feel that yellow glow reaching out. Let it illuminate this clock tower. Go slowly. Don’t let it get out of your control. But let it steadily encompass me, and then the room.”
The second he eased his desire to contain the flower, it blossomed forth and grew. Within seconds, Tuilla was within the sphere of yellow light.
“I see you!” Richard said with a gasp. “Even with my eyes closed, I see you! You’re like a lamp in the yellow glow. You don’t look like a person. You’re just a brilliant source of light, like a star against the background of the milky way.”
“What color is my star?”
“It’s… It’s kind of a bluish green. Kind of like turquoise.”
“You are so close, Richard.” He could hear the excitement in the old woman’s voice. “I expected getting this far would take us days. But you are surprising me with every moment.”
“I want to go further. I want to expand more.”
“Let it grow,” she said. “But go slowly.”
Richard had every intention to follow Tuilla’s wishes, and start with perhaps just the building they were in. Or maybe just the block. But it was as if he was hanging onto an icy slope, and no matter how hard he tried, control was slowly slipping from his grasp. He wanted to open his eyes, and even tried, but he couldn’t. The panic that tore through him when his grip slipped felt like it might rob him of consciousness, but then he let go, and felt his awareness flow out like a tidal wave in all directions.
“Tuilla!” He screamed the old woman’s name. “It’s too… It’s too much! I can’t hold…”
The glow exploded from him, like a tidal wave coursing out from the center of the City and County building. It moved so fast it was impossible to follow, and he thought his ghost body might fly into pieces with it. But in the next moment he felt the yellow glow hit the boundaries of the Hereafter, at the base of the Wasatch. It was like a wave hitting the shore of a giant lake. The impact flowed instantly north and south, and also continued to the west, its speed undiminished. Finally, the other limits of the Hereafter were reached. The barrier stopped his mind’s expansion utterly, and within seconds, his panic subsided. His eyes were still sealed shut, and he realized that he had stopped breathing. But now he sensed it. The whole of the Hereafter, from Nevada to here in Salt Lake City, and more than a hundred miles north to south. Like some ancient golden Lake Bonneville, he saw it in his mind. The perfect oval of it…
Slowly he came to realize that Tuilla had risen and had grasped his shoulders, with hands that seemed unnaturally strong. He could hear her yelling his name, but it was distant. Perhaps like a single voice floating in that lake, the sound of it lost upon the waves. With his mind, he went searching for her…
And found that glowing in that gigantic yellow lake were a myriad of stars.
“Breathe Richard!” He could hear Tuilla saying. “Don’t open your eyes! But breathe!”
Slowly, he decoded the strange words that the old woman was speaking, and could zero in on her star in the vastness he was experiencing. Her voice echoed as if she was speaking to him from the far end of a massive temple. It echoed off the walls and the ceiling of the Hereafter before reaching his ears, changed almost beyond recognition.
With a gasp, he took in a lungful of air, and he felt the panic receding. All that he now saw was that vast yellow basin and the myriad stars. And he realized each star was a ghost. Just as with Tuilla, each star was a soul, somewhere in this valley, somewhere within the boundaries of the Hereafter.
“My god, there are so many of us,” he said with wonder.
“You see them?” He felt the old woman’s hands release his shoulders, and her voice was coming to him more clearly now. Her lips must be right beside his ear.
“I see them…”
“How far has your consciousness expanded?”
“All of it. I see it all. The whole gigantic oval of the Hereafter. The boundaries are just where Billy told me they were. Tuilla, is this how you see the world? Is this what it all looks like to a ghost as old as you?”
“Richard, no…” The old woman’s voice was shaking, and he thought perhaps she was even terrified. “My ability to see extends no more than a half mile. The only one I could ever sense at a distance beyond that was George.”
Richard tried to understand what the old woman was saying. “So, you’ve never seen this? What I’m seeing now?”
“I don’t think anybody has ever seen it. Not the way you’re describing. You, Richard Pratt, are unique. You are far more special than I ever dreamed you could be.”
“I… I can barely grasp it all,” he whispered. “There are so many of us…”
“I don’t know. Thousands, for sure. So many I don’t think I could even count them.”
“Are there red stars, among the turquoise?”
Richard looked closer into the image formed in his mind. “Yes, there are. They’re fewer, but there are still many. Perhaps a few hundred. Again, they’re so scattered, it’s hard to count.”
He gasped. “Wait! Something is changing. When I try to concentrate on the red dots, try to count them, they… get obscured. There is something like a gray mist, or a cloud. As I try to focus on them, the gray stops me. It’s like a fog rolling over the lake.”
“That gray mist is George,” Tuilla said, with true terror in her voice.
“It’s like he knows I’m here, and he’s stopping me from seeing the red dots. Are they his angels? The ones he’s controlling?”
“Yes. You’ve revealed yourself to him. Now this is important, Richard. Where is the gray mist coming from? Does it have a source? Can you pinpoint it?”
Richard tried. He looked for dense spots in the fog, or for a source that might be spewing it out like a smoke bomb. “No, I can’t find a source. It seems to be everywhere in the valley at once.”
“Does the gray mist respond to you? Do you think it can tell where you are? Is it rolling toward you, or away from you?”
“No. It’s just sitting there. It just seems to thicken over any spot where I look. Where I try to see the red stars more clearly.”
“Then leave the red stars behind for now. I want you to concentrate on the turquoise stars. In fact, I want you to focus on the brightest one. The one nearest to you.”
“That’s you. The one closest to me is you.”
“That’s right. And I need you to open your mind to me. You’ve come so far already. It is only one more step for you to open your mind. You asked many, many questions when we started. I think I can now give you some of the answers you are looking for. But you need to let me in.”
Richard’s sense of danger flared, and he had to suppress it. He was never a public person, and there were so many deep and dark thoughts in his mind. He instinctively knew that if he let this old woman in, she would know all those thoughts. She would almost instantly know him better than anybody had ever known him before. Better than Justin. Better even than Keith. And the prospect terrified him.
“I can’t… There is too much in here… That I don’t want you to see… Too much. I’m ashamed…” he stammered.
“Trust me, Richard. I’m not here to plumb your mind. I’m here to answer your questions. To let you see things I could never describe.”
With what felt like a herculean force of will, Richard focused on Tuilla’s star. It drew toward him, the blue-green glow slowly wrapping itself around him, until he felt cut off from the yellow lake of the Hereafter.
Her voice no longer sounded like it was in a cathedral. Now it sounded like a soft whisper, coming from inside his own mind.
“Richard, this is our story…”
She let it flow into him, and he lost himself in the river of it.
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.