Chapter 2.63: A Dark Room Full of Snakes
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 15, 11:30 am
Keith had been awake for an hour. But he’d just been lying there, alternately writing in his journal and staring up at the ceiling.
Why am I so tired? he wondered. When I’m not sleeping, my mind’s full of fog. I wonder if that’s just the way grief works.
He hoped that was the case, but in the back of his mind, he had to wonder. He had a nagging fear all the time now that the darkness he was in was just getting deeper. It was a feeling that he could not easily dismiss as the remnants of grief. What he was feeling was more pervasive. And it wasn’t just in his mind. It had to do with Howard Gunderson, and the warning that he had brought to them. A warning he said was from Richard.
Why am I so certain that what Gunderson said is true? he wondered. But no matter how he tried to dissect it logically, he knew that yes, he did believe it. Absolutely. Something horrible was about to happen in Salt Lake City. And somehow, Richard was a part of it.
The feeling of comfort that he got from Richard’s presence had not returned overnight, as he had hoped and prayed that it would. He’d tried to will that feeling into his hand, open on the pillow next to him. If Richard really was out there and watching over him, why couldn’t he feel it?
I had been so sure… Why am I now so full of doubt?
For the past hour Keith had been jotting thoughts like these in his notebook, and as he looked over them, he thought that the hen scratchings looked more like the handiwork of a madman than the calm, introspective, confident guy that he liked to think he was.
Michelle and Pil were downstairs, and he could hear them moving about. They had stayed with him the whole night, sleeping in the guest bedroom. He didn’t know if it was because they wanted to make sure he was okay, or because there was still a cop stationed outside, making sure they didn’t venture too far. Michelle had come up to check on him as soon as she heard him stirring, which he had known she would, and now he could hear the low hum of the TV from the living room.
The clock on the bedside table read 11:35. He forced himself to get up, thus claiming the minor victory of being able to say that he didn’t stay in bed until noon. He took a quick shower and dressed. When he was done, the clock said 11:51. He crossed the threshold of the bedroom, seeing his ability to walk straight this morning as another minor victory.
He found Michelle downstairs in the living room, watching the TV, with the volume low. He half expected her to pop up from the couch with a chipper remark, such as, “Well, it’s about time, sleepyhead!” But to his surprise, she barely acknowledged him as he plopped down beside her on the couch. When she looked at him, he had the impression that she may have been crying. At the very least, the bags under her eyes told him that she had gotten little sleep.
“So. Do we still have our escort outside?” Keith asked.
“Last I checked,” Michelle said, and took his hand. He felt her lean hard against his right arm.
He sighed. “Yesterday seems so surreal now. I’m still not sure it really happened.”
She grunted. “I know. For me, the worst part was the lying.”
He knew exactly what she meant. The interview with the officer that Detective Grayson had sent inside was exhausting, but they finally convinced him they didn’t know anything more than they had told Grayson: Howard had been there, he had apologized for shooting Richard, and then he had left. The hardest part was explaining why Michelle’s hair was still soaked. Yes, they said, she had gone out into the rain, but not while he was there. She’d gone out after he left, trying to see where he had gone.
Keith wasn’t sure the officer had believed them. He kept giving them glances that showed he was at least skeptical. But he hadn’t persisted, and eventually, he’d left.
“Have you heard from Grayson this morning?” Keith asked.
“No. Hopefully we won’t. If we’re lucky, that will be the end of it. At least for now.”
“I don’t think we’re going to be that lucky,” Keith said morosely. “If, or more likely when, they catch Howard, wearing Richard’s clothes, we’re going to have some more explaining to do. What are we going to say?”
Michelle didn’t look at him, but he could feel the tension in her. “I’ve been thinking about that. If they catch him, and he gives up that he’s in Richard’s clothes, I think we have to come clean. He might make up a story, but we won’t know what it is. And any story we told that didn’t jibe with his would just make us look even worse.”
“So you think we should just tell the truth, and to hell with the consequences?” Keith asked.
“Yeah. I even think we should consider doing it before they catch him. It will go easier on us if we do, I think.”
“Have you talked with Pil about this?”
“No, not yet. I wanted to talk to you first.”
Keith was quiet as he contemplated what Michelle was saying. It made sense. All they could hope for is that the cops would write off their inexplicable actions as the result of their grief, and go easy on them. But he knew they couldn’t explain to the police why they had lied. Especially since they didn’t understand it themselves.
The old grandfather clock chimed noon. For some reason, the sound of it caused a rush of anxiety in Keith, and Michelle sensed it. Or else she was feeling it too. They clung to each other on the couch, holding their breath until the last chime.
The TV was tuned to the noon broadcast of the news, and together they watched it in silence. The station led with news on Howard Gunderson, and the chipper young actress-turned-journalist reported that there was still no news on the escaped murder suspect. That report was followed up by an interview with a neighbor of the police officer who had helped Gunderson escape, and who had then run over the pedestrians downtown. It was the typical interview you always hear after a slaughter. “He was a good family man. And no, I have no idea why he would do something like this…”
The whole spectacle made Keith feel nauseous.
“Sometimes it feels like the world is a huge dark room full of snakes,” Keith said. “And that none of us known where we can step without being bitten.”
It was 12:05, according to the grandfather clock.
Why am I so obsessed with the time? Keith wondered.
“Where’s Pil?” he finally asked.
“Oh, he had to run home for a bit,” Michelle said. “Just to water the plants and feed the fish. He promised our guardian angel outside that he’d be back soon. We’ve both taken the day off work.”
“Thank you, Pea,” Keith said, leaning his head against hers. “You two have been amazing.” She didn’t respond, but he felt her squeeze his hand tighter.
A young reporter was on the TV now, rattling away about some human interest story. And then suddenly, she was interrupted right in the middle of a sentence, as the camera cut back to the anchor behind her desk. She was clearly listening to something on her earpiece.
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’m going to have to interrupt your story, Sasha. I’m just getting reports of an incident now. The reports we’re getting are of a shooting at the Chuck-A-Rama Buffet in Sugarhouse. We have reporters on the way, but here is what I can tell you now…”
“Jesus Christ,” Michelle whispered. “What is happening in this fucking city?” She got up and switched off the TV, which Keith had to admit was a relief. They had all been too glued to that stupid box for the past week. The silence immediately felt calming.
The window to the right of the one that was still boarded up was open, and a light breeze filtered through the curtains, billowing them gently into the room. It was through that window they heard it.
“What is that?” Keith asked.
“It sounds like… somebody screaming. It’s a long way away. But…” Michelle shivered visibly. “That’s not a TV or something. I think that’s a real scream.”
She quickly rushed past Keith, who was still on the couch, and headed for the front door. Keith jumped up as quickly as he could, and followed her, his thick, bare feet padding on the carpet. By the time he caught up, she was already out on the front porch, and turning her head like a cat, trying to pinpoint the source of the screaming.
“I can’t place it,” Michelle said. “But that sounds horrible. Like somebody is being hacked to death or something.”
“It has to be a TV. Or a prank,” Keith said, his arms showing visible goosebumps in the warm summer air.
“I don’t think so,” Michelle said. “But it’s got to be at least a few blocks away. Maybe to the north? I don’t know. I can’t really tell.”
Keith looked across the street. The cop car was still there, but its windows were up, and the guy inside probably had the radio playing. The screaming sound wasn’t loud at this distance, so it was unlikely the cop could hear it. And he hadn’t glanced their way to see the two of them standing on the porch. At least, not yet.
“I’m going to go tell the cop,” Michelle said, and started down from the porch. But before she reached the sidewalk, the screaming stopped, and she froze on the edge of the grass.
The silence that followed was eerily profound. There wasn’t even a breath of wind, and the sun was high and brilliant above their heads. The air felt dense from the rain the day before, and the moisture swallowed even more of the sound. Michelle just stood at the edge of the sidewalk, listening. And Keith slowly crossed the lawn and joined her there. The moist grass felt good on his bare feet.
As Keith watched, a child ran by. He was a boy, perhaps twelve years old, with dark hair and freckles. He had a wide-eyed expression on his face, like he had just witnessed something terrifying. And as he came closer to them down the quiet street, Keith realized he wasn’t freckled at all. What he had first taken for freckles actually now looked like something red splattered across his face.
Michelle didn’t notice, and Keith was just getting ready to tell her what he had seen, when they both heard and felt an explosion. It too was far away, but it was strong enough to shake their feet, and Keith instinctively reached out for Michelle’s arm. A plume of black smoke drifted lazily into the air to the southeast, perhaps somewhere over Sugarhouse.
Sirens bloomed into the summer air, blending into a mournful wail that came from everywhere.
Keith was chilled, and now even Michelle’s intention of crossing the street to talk to the cop seemed like a bad idea.
“Mish, I think we need to go back inside,” he said.
From the living room, behind the plywood barricade, Michelle called Pil, and reached him at their house, just a couple of blocks away. As she spoke to him, Keith could hear the fear in her voice. Terror had gripped them both like an icy hand.
With Pil still on the line, Michelle turned to Keith.
“Pil says everything is fine there, and he didn’t hear anything. He didn’t hear the screaming, and he didn’t hear the explosion. He says that he’s just going to feed the fish, but then he will be right back over.”
She put the phone back to her ear.
“Please hurry, honey. I’m scared and I don’t know why…”
Michelle’s face crumpled, and she pulled the phone away from her ear suddenly, as if she didn’t recognize what it was.
“What happened?” Keith asked, already knowing what she was going to say.
“The phone just went dead. He was there one minute, and I could hear him talking, and then he wasn’t.”
“Call him back,” Keith said, feeling a thread of panic making its way through his chest.
Michelle tried, but the call wouldn’t go through. As she kept trying, Keith looked out the window at the street. Everything out there looked just like it always did. Nothing on this morning seemed in the least out of the ordinary. Indeed, it seemed like the most beautiful of summer days.
Then it struck him. Something was indeed different.
“Michelle, look,” he said, pointing past the curtain.
“I don’t see anything,” she said, leaning over his shoulder.
“That’s just it. The cop is gone,” Keith said. He let the curtain fall back over the window. “I think we’re on our own.”
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.