The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 2.57: The Kindling of a Thousand Flames

Book Two — Gifts Both Light and Dark

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June 14, 11:55 pm

Only minutes earlier Richard peeked over the railing and did his best to survey the plaza below them, without being seen. But as he watched, he thought perhaps his stealth was hardly necessary. The angels were all now completely transfixed by the sight of the Temple before them. They swayed slowly from side to side, but none of them moved from the spots they had staked out in the plaza. They appeared to be basking in the illumination from the temple itself, as if their eyes were dazzled by the sight.

“My God,” Richard said. “Billy told me he thought there were maybe a couple hundred of them. But there has to be four or five times that many.”

He glanced quickly to his left, but Tuilla was not watching the gathering. She had her back to the railing, and her head down, as if she was deep in thought. Or perhaps deep in despair, Richard thought. Afraid of what that could mean, he turned his attention back to the plaza.

It appeared that all the ghosts who were coming had now arrived. None were late to the party.

If there is one thing you can say for the Wanderer’s minions, Richard thought, they’re certainly punctual.

Richard sensed a slight stirring to his left, at the southern corner of Temple Square. A girl with flaxen hair, tied neatly in a ponytail at the back, entered the sphere of illumination left by the streetlight, and made her way into the shadowy plaza. She was dressed in a simple yellow jumper, with a pattern of blue and red flowers that seemed vibrant and out of place in the morbid gathering of the dead through which she walked. Although most didn’t acknowledge her, Richard watched in fascination as the ghosts parted before her, and then stepped back into place after she had passed. The young woman looked like a bright fishing lure being pulled through murky waters.

Near the center of the plaza she sat down, facing the temple. And like the ghosts all around her, she looked up at the soaring edifice of the building with a reverential air. She then folded her hands in prayer, and although Richard could not see it, he imagined she closed her eyes as well.

That was when he noticed who was standing just behind her and to the right.

“I see Mattie,” he whispered to the old woman. “And behind her is Justin. I think the guy from the theater is there too—the one she called Bradley.” The three of them stood in a triangle, as if Mattie was the figurehead on a sailing ship, and the two ghosts behind her were loyal sailors, ready to put their backs to the oars. For a brief moment, Mattie glared at the praying girl. But even as he watched, her attention wavered, and she joined the rest of the throng in staring up at the temple.

For a moment, the scene was so still and silent that Richard felt the hand of fate caressing the back of his neck, and the tiny hairs there all stood on end.

Suddenly, a ripple passed through the crowd of ghosts. It wasn’t a ripple of movement as much as an intake of breath, which was then held by the crowd as if they were expecting something glorious about to unfold. Their collective gaze shifted slightly, and their hands opened forward, as if in supplication. No longer were they staring at the temple itself, but now at something lower and closer. Richard let his gaze follow theirs.

A man stood on the edge of the reflecting pool, just in front of the wall that divided the plaza from the temple. Richard felt a dark joy ripple through the crowd, as the gentle light of the streetlights filtered into the dark courtyard, and caught glittering metal and yellow stripes on the figure’s jacket.

The Wanderer is a military man, Richard thought. Of course he is…

“He’s here,” he whispered to Tuilla. “It’s George. Or whoever he’s possessed.” Quickly, Tuilla raised up on her knees and gazed over the railing next to Richard.

The man was not what he had expected, although Richard would have been hard pressed to describe what that was, exactly. This was not a towering figure, or a figure that radiated strength and authority. The man’s build was slight. He wore his military uniform under some kind of long overcoat that reached down to his ankles like a cape. It was hard to see many more details about the man, other than the fuzz of gray hair, a cap under his arm, and a well-trimmed but thick white mustache, adorning a face that even from this distance appeared strangely angular; strangely skeletal. There was something about the figure that made Richard profoundly uneasy, as if he was not well, mentally or physically.

Tuilla was trembling next to him.

“This is the body he possessed?” Richard asked, incredulous. “He looks frail. And he looks like he must be in his sixties, at least.”

“Yes, at least,” Tuilla said, her voice so quiet that Richard could barely hear. “He disappeared over sixty years ago—some years before he started speaking to the dead and building his army. That was the moment I could no longer sense where he was. And I haven’t known until this very moment.”

“Sixty years? He’s been in that body for sixty years? Is the guy he possessed even still alive and awake in there? He must have possessed him when he was just a child!”

Tuilla didn’t answer. They watched in silence as a shabbily dressed man carrying two shopping bags passed behind the Wanderer, giving him a wary look, before steering clear and hurrying from the plaza.

It had been a couple minutes since his arrival, and the man did not appear to be speaking. He simply stood there, with his hands clasped behind his back, and his feet spread wide on the concrete lip of the fountain. His stance was very much the military man. I think they call that “parade rest,” Richard thought.

“Why is he just standing there?” Richard whispered. But even as he spoke, he felt a ripple of energy pass through the crowd, and realized that just because he couldn’t hear the man, that didn’t mean that his minions couldn’t. He concentrated, hoping that he could somehow tune into the man’s frequency, but it was impossible.

“I think he’s speaking,” Richard said. “But I can’t hear him.” His hands gripped hard against the railing in front of him.

“Yes,” Tuilla said. “He’s speaking. I can’t hear him either. He’s only speaking to his angels. Those under his sway.”

Richard groaned. “I guess they haven’t invited us to this party.”

At that moment he felt a surge in the anxiety and agitation of the crowd, as if the man in front of them had spoken something profound or important. It was like a subsonic rumble that he could feel more than hear.

“This is the moment that I’ve been fearing,” Tuilla said, turning away from the sight once again.

Richard let his eyes rove over the crowd of ghosts below him. He could see nothing in that sea of faces and bodies except rapt attention. And yet the silence seemed pregnant, full of meaning, full of portent.

Richard’s gaze was suddenly drawn to the edge of the plaza, at the far left. There, under a tree, were the only two ghosts that didn’t appear to be looking at their savior. Richard saw a glint of silver in the hand of one, like he was turning a shiny knife to catch the glow from the street lamp. To his normal gaze, there wasn’t much different about these two ghosts than the hundreds that surrounded them. But when Richard let himself shift into his deeper gaze, as Tuilla had taught him, they looked very different indeed. These were neither red stars nor turquoise stars. They were little more than malign shadows in vaguely human shapes that twisted and writhed like slow motion black flames, or like a pair of mis-matched dark wings.

“Do you see those two shadows?” he whispered to the old woman. “There. Under the trees.”

“I see them,” Tuilla said, her voice strangely flat.

“I think they’re ghosts. But a strange kind. They seem darker, less human. Like they’re… like they’re barely there. Have you ever seen anything like them before?”

“No,” the old woman said simply. But it was clear how much weight that admission held. Richard was troubled to know that there was still so much about this world that even Tuilla didn’t know.

“If I had a heartbeat,” Richard said after a few minutes, “it would be racing now…”

And then, without warning, it was over. Richard felt the expelled breath of nearly a thousand ghosts in the plaza, released at once, and the effect was like the kindling of a thousand flames. The sudden release of tension and energy that came from the gathered ghosts felt like it might knock Richard flat on the roof where they lurked. All at once, every ghost in the plaza lifted their hands in some strange gesture of yearning or submission, and held their hands there, as the man stepped down from the edge of the reflecting pool. A roaring wail rose from the crowd, that was equal parts adoration and agony, and was so loud in Richard’s ears that he had to clasp his hands against his head to try and block it out.

He was suddenly frantic. “We have to go after him!” he shouted, close to Tuilla’s ear, and no longer afraid of being overheard. “Maybe this is the only chance we’ll get!”

Tuilla’s grip on his forearm was sudden and unexpected, and the power of her hand brought Richard back down to his knees.

“Richard, no!” she cried, desperate to be heard over the keening of the ghosts. “You’re not ready! Just exactly what would you do if you caught him? He’s a living man now! You can’t hurt him!”

“No, but I could follow him! Maybe I could learn who he is. I could learn where he holes up.”

“Don’t, please! It’s too dangerous. I didn’t realize… Richard, I think he’s different than the rest of the possessed. I think he can see…”

But it was too late for her to stop him. Richard tore loose from her grip and vaulted over the edge of the railing like a gymnast. It was only on his way down that he realized the risk he was taking. It was a two-story drop to the lawn, and if he were to land wrong, he could be reset—and that would be the end of any chance he would have of following the Wanderer. Luckily, he tucked at just the right instant, and rolled onto the grass, between two ghosts, who were so enthralled and enraptured that they took no notice.

Climbing to his feet, he glanced quickly around the plaza, and realized that the ghosts were already dispersing. And quickly! They moved like messengers dispatched on their assignments, each going off in a different direction, but each walking quickly. Even as he raced across the plaza he could see it was emptying out, and the roaring was receding, like a departing train whistle.

And then suddenly, before him, he saw Mattie.

Oh, Jesus Fuck! he thought, as he dove behind a hedge, barely escaping her eyes. Peering out at her, he was amazed to see that she was dancing, like the little girl he had seen in the Valley Fair cinemas, on a night that seemed like a lifetime ago now. She danced past him, and he was relieved that she neither looked his way, nor looked back as she skipped away, humming and laughing like she was full of unbridled joy.

It was only as she departed that he realized Justin and the airman were nowhere to be seen. Where did they go? he had time to think. But he couldn’t take the time to look for them. He could already see that the military man was now getting away. He had reached the corner at the north side of the Temple and was disappearing around the wall.

Richard broke into a sprint, nimbly dodging the dead as he ran. To him, it felt like he was in a video game, trying to navigate the obstacles as quickly as he could and still make it to the end of the level before the clock ran out.

He turned the corner of the temple just in time to see the uniformed man pull out of a parking spot in a very typical, green, standard military issue jeep. It seemed strange to see this very human figure, when he had expected to see something powerful and supernatural. But this was just a man in a jeep, and he made a u-turn in the center of north temple, and then sped off to the west.

Richard followed, but the jeep was moving far faster than he could hope to run, even with the newfound speed he had gained since becoming a ghost. He ran a half block after the jeep anyway, but it turned the corner to the left and was gone.

In its departure, the street in which Richard stood seemed so deserted that he might as well have been standing in the street from some post-apocalyptic movie. He felt like Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. But then he turned, and saw the legions of the dead, still flowing out of the plaza behind him.

In utter frustration, he screamed into the night sky. “God fucking dammit!!!” And then stood staring, his hands clenching and releasing in frustration.

As he walked back, he saw the ghosts were now almost all gone. The last of them were rushing quickly into the side streets and alleys on all sides of the plaza, and the noise they had been making had now died completely, leaving the gardens in a dark and eerie silence. There was only one figure in the plaza now, and it was Tuilla. She was standing over a bench at the center, looking at something that lay at her feet.

His anger now spent, Richard jogged up to her and saw the look of sadness on her face. Lying at her feet was the young girl in the floral print dress, with the flaxen hair and the ponytail.

She was dead.

Her hands were still clasped in prayer. But the look on her face was one of such terror and shock that Richard had to take a step back. The woman’s eyes were still open. And he felt Tuilla’s hand on his elbow.

He allowed her to lead him away from the body.

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. As a poet, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre; and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He enjoys hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop me a line, and consider supporting my work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. More than half of the the trilogy's over 200 chapters are already available there for subscribers.

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