June 15, 4:00 am
It may not be in the middle of nowhere, as they say, but you can certainly see it from there.
Located eighty-five miles west of Salt Lake City, the Dugway Proving Grounds is one of the largest military installations of its kind in the world. It encompasses more that twelve hundred square miles of desolate desert wilderness, and has one of the most tightly controlled security infrastructures in the world.
At the eastern edge of those twelve hundred square miles is the city of Dugway. Close to two thousand people live and work in this combination small town, army base, and research laboratory, in a location that is as isolated as any in the contiguous United States.
Less than a mile before the town and the research laboratories, on State Highway 199 (the only road into the base from the east), there is a security checkpoint. There is no wall or fence, but with concrete abutments, hidden armed guards and invisible aerial backup, the army ensures that no visitors will ever enter the town or the base uninvited.
The LDS Church of Dugway (better known as “the Dugway ward house”) is just a quarter of a mile outside of this security perimeter. If you stand in front of the ward house and look to your left, you can see the guard station and its concrete barriers.
Each Sunday the Mormons living in Dugway parade out past the barricades for their devotions, where they hear their bishop speak of peace and love and good will among men. After the services, they parade back through the multiple layers of security and heavily armed guards, into a facility that researches some of the most deadly and terrifying weapons ever invented by man.
For make no mistake, the business of the Dugway Proving Grounds has always been the business of death. From their early studies of chemical and biological weapons in the midst of World War II, through the cold war, and up to the present day—the lethality of the bombs, nerve agents and other weapons studied in Dugway had grown steadily more horrific, steadily more terrifying.
Command Sergeant Major Sutton Deary loved the desert. He felt at home in the dry vastness of it. He loved the isolation, and the loved the endless open skies. He loved that it was so unforgiving. And most of all, he loved that the desert, and the Dugway Proving Grounds, were both in the same business. His business. The business of death.
The little orphan boy who had survived the horrific car accident when he was just five years old was now the head of security for the West Desert Test Center—a complex of top secret labs several miles to the west of Dugway.
On this still dark Monday morning in June, Sutton Deary—also known as George Drouillard, also known as God, and also known by some simply as the Wanderer—was not in his office in the WDTC. Instead, he was parked behind the Mormon ward house, just a stone’s throw from those daunting security checkpoints. And while he should have been reveling in anticipation for what was to come, his mind was troubled.
The gathering of his angels had been beautiful. But it was also not quite as he had planned it.
How glorious they had looked! the Wanderer thought, remembering the scene just outside the temple grounds.
Never before had he assembled all his angels in one place, and never had he looked upon them with his human eyes. They were stunning there in the plaza, arrayed before him like soldiers prepared for war. They had all suffered so much, and their pain showed in their aged faces, in their bloodied garments, or in their stark nakedness.
To him, they were all beautiful, and they were all horrible.
He had spoken to his angels, but not with his human mouth. His tongue did not move, and yet they heard the familiar voice that had spoken to each of them individually for years. He spoke to them with love and compassion. He told them their journey was almost done—that through their faith and devotion he would open their doors and lead them all to the Ocean of God. There, he told them, they would bathe in his love and devotion through all eternity—never again to be tortured with memories of what they had lost, as they had been tortured every moment in this horrible valley.
It had all been lies, of course. But wasn’t that his right, as God? To lie? After all, Gods had lied to humanity since the beginning.
What mattered was that they had believed his lies, and had raised their hands to him in supplication and adoration. It had all been so beautiful, and so perfect…
And then Richard Pratt had spoiled it.
He had not expected the strange and disconcerting new ghost to be at the gathering. In fact, he had not been thinking about the Disruptor at all. It wasn’t until he stepped down from the edge of the fountain that Pratt’s presence had asserted itself, like one blindingly brilliant turquoise star among the sea of red. For a moment, he had struggled to get a sense of exactly where Pratt was in the crowd, but his mind had rebelled. And suddenly Sutton Deary was assaulted by something that he had not felt in years: Fear.
The terror became so acute, so fast, that Sutton had bolted from the gathering, barely getting into his jeep and roaring down North Temple as the brilliant blue star of Richard Pratt turned the corner of the temple grounds. It wasn’t until he was a dozen blocks away that Sutton’s fear finally released its icy grip on his mind, and he realized he had left without his two companions.
No matter, he had thought, his hands tense upon the steering wheel. My Dark Ones know what to do. They can gather their charge and bring him to me on foot. There is plenty of time.
But Richard Pratt, the Disruptor, had continued to weigh on his mind as he zipped down the dark and empty streets of Salt Lake City, and his fear quickly morphed into anger. Pratt had tarnished what would have been a glorious night! Sutton had intended to tour the city after dispatching his angels, looking for one last time on the doomed city, before heading back to Dugway. And now, the whole evening felt… soiled.
Not that there was anything the man could do to stop things now that they were in motion. But his very appearance in the Hereafter at this critical moment felt like a prank, played by a universe with a cruel sense of the humor.
As the anger built, he had finally stopped in the parking lot of the Salt Palace, and reached out his mind, intending to drive Richard Pratt mad, once and for all.
That, too, had not gone at all as he had hoped. And on the drive back across the desert, Pratt’s words played over and over in his mind.
The back parking lot of the ward house was still deserted as the first tendrils of morning light toyed with the stars in the east. The arrow-straight path of Route 199 was as empty as something out of an apocalyptic movie. Sitting alone in the jeep, it was easy for Sutton to imagine he was the last man on earth.
He had tried to get some rest in the predawn hours, but his anxiety about Richard Pratt had been replaced by anticipation of what was to come, and he had been too excited to slumber. And besides, his hands ached, and the constant pain in his back meant he couldn’t find a comfortable position on the bench-like seat of the jeep. So as the sky went from inky black to steel gray, he just sat. And he pondered. Finally, the first rays of the sun crept over the mountains, and he felt the warm rays upon his face.
What a gift my years in this body have been, he thought, as contentment spread over him like a warm blanket. And what a gift my ability to wield power in both the world of the living and the world of the dead.
To pass the time, he imagined not what was to come, but what it would be like after.
He imagined his angels standing silent after the last of the usurpers fell. His ghostly army, waiting for their portals to open, longing to hear their God call them home. How disappointed they would be, to call on him and find only silence. And then that disappointment would grow into rage, which he knew would be directed toward any living human that dared to cross the boundaries of the Hereafter again, for all eternity. Thanks to his betrayal, this land would be forever damned, and forever guarded.
Command Sergeant Major Sutton Deary checked his watch. It was now 10:00 am. Only two hours left.
He closed his eyes and reached out with his mind. He could see the myriad of red stars in the yellow firmament, scattered throughout the Salt Lake Valley. Yes, they are all in place now, he thought, or will be soon.
Searching among those red stars, he looked for the two that were most important to his plan: the Dark Ones he had left behind at the gathering. The two twisted souls had been at his side for so long, their absence felt like a missing limb. He had broken them into pieces over a half century and then reassembled them into his own image. They were the living embodiments of his rage and anger, and they belonged to him, utterly.
He found them, walking together, many miles from Salt Lake City. They were passing the building known as Salt Air, the abandoned resort on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, that had been used in at least one twisted horror film. The image of the Dark Ones trudging past that creepy, broken relic gave him joy.
Between them, he saw the dim red star that he was seeking. The one that the two ghosts were bringing to him.
Although Mattie had long begged him for her second angel, he had not brought Bradley Seward back for her. Bradley was his, and his role in what was coming was crucial. The Dark Ones were bringing Seward to him, right on schedule. There wasn’t much left of the man’s mind, but there was enough.
Sutton looked at his watch one more time. An eternity had made him patient, but the digital numbers were ticking past very slowly now. Finally, his watch said that it was 11:00.
Only one hour to go.
He forced his frail body out of the jeep and stood for a moment, leaning heavily against the door frame. His aches and pains were becoming worse every day now. He felt thankful that he would be able to complete his task before it became necessary for him to use a cane. Or worse.
He closed the door of the jeep, but since it had no roof, he did not bother to lock it. He patted the hood of the vehicle as he hobbled past. From the edge of the parking lot, he stopped for one last glance, ensuring that the jeep was not visible to either the guard house or passing cars on the road.
His back and hips finally loosening up, Sergeant Major Sutton Deary strode southeast, into the desert.
Just under a mile from the ward house the Wanderer found the spot he was looking for. He sat on a large rock that lay in the bottom of a small wash and looked around. The wash was the remnant of an ancient flash flood, and it had changed very little over the decades he had been coming here.
It was surprisingly private. Because the boulder sat in the bottom of the wash, he was hidden from the road, and the ward house. Even with binoculars, the guards at the security checkpoint would not be able to see him.
The rock upon which he leaned was not remarkable. There were many others like it lying around the ancient stream bed, although this one was the largest. Made of sandstone and shale, it was about two feet high at the center, and slightly taller than it was wide. Perhaps, when conditions were right, this old wash still saw a flood tumble through. It might happen only once every few decades, but there had been enough, over the years, to settle the huge red stone more deeply into the sandy ground.
He touched the rock’s rough edges. They were still sharp enough to snag your clothes.
Or your soul, Deary thought.
He shifted his weight on the stone, and felt those edges dig into his hips, which were getting bonier and more painful every year. And he smiled.
This was how he had planned it. When the chaos started, the base hierarchy would try to reach him on his cell phone. When they couldn’t, they would check the vehicle logs and assume that he was still in Salt Lake City, perhaps caught up in the violence. Nobody on the base would take the time to mourn him, or even look for him, as things deteriorated to the east. When the base was called on to respond, the chain of command would kick in to cover his absence, as smooth as silk.
By this evening, he realized, nobody living will likely care whether Sutton Deary is alive or dead.
And that thought was strangely comforting.
He closed his eyes and put his right hand on the stone. As always, the touch of it brought him strange visions, almost like memories.
You picked up this stone. The thought came unbidden. You picked it up, and it crashed down upon you. Yes, that I remember. And only God is capable of such feats…
As he sat on the rock, he felt the power of it coursing through him.
I am the dark leviathan, he thought. I am the kraken. I am the black octopus, and my tentacles reach out for hundreds of miles around me.
The yellow glow of the Hereafter was waiting for him, pulsing with new power and unexpected urgency.
He looked at his watch. It was 11:59. It was time.
Taking the watch off, he threw it into the desert. Then he closed his eyes and spread his hands wide. He flexed his fingers, feeling the power pulse up and through them. The power that was the only thing that quelled the ache in his hands and in his back.
This body is almost done, he thought. But it will last me through what I need to do.
He took a deep breath, spread his tentacles wide, and began.
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.