Chapter 2.65: Unraveling
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, 12:10 pm
The West Valley Youth Shelter had not been eager to speak to Morgan Jensen. But after a string of suicides among the homeless population of West Valley City, including two residents of the shelter itself, they clearly felt they didn’t have a choice.
It’s either that, or my sparkling personality, Morgan thought.
The truth was, Morgan rarely had much trouble talking her way into the good graces of those she set her sights upon. She was blessed with a warm and engaging personality, and she radiated a calm confidence and authority that inspired trust. It also didn’t hurt that she was under thirty, tall, blond, and beautiful—all things that were pretty much required for an on-air personality in the TV news business these days. And although she harbored a professional resentment about those stereotypes and sexist barriers, she wasn’t beyond using her good looks and brilliant smile to charm whoever she needed to charm. Be it men, or women.
In this case, the director at the shelter had only required a minimum amount of her charm to open his door to her, as long as she agreed to ensure that none of the clients at his facility would be interviewed on camera without his consent. She had agreed to that, but also knew that, should the need arise, she wouldn’t have any trouble talking him into allowing for such an interview.
As it turned out, their conversation had been not only friendly and helpful, but incredibly insightful about the causes of youth suicide, and the work they were doing at the shelter to prevent it. After an hour-long interview Morgan felt she had enough footage to put together a meaningful piece, even if she didn’t speak to any of the clients of the shelter directly.
At the end of the interview, the director had even agreed to let her do a live shot from the corridor. The station had asked her to do a teaser at 12:15, just before a commercial break on the noon news. Morgan looked at her notes and read over what she was going to say.
“Hey Stan, let’s do a dry run on this while we have a few minutes,” she said.
Stan Kirshner was her cameraman, and had worked with her for so long that he always knew what she wanted—often, even before she did. He looked at his watch and grunted. His camera was all set up and ready to go.
“Should I run a tape, or do you just want to wing it?”
“Wing it, I think. I just want to talk it through before we go live. We have enough time, I think.”
“You got about two minutes. Go when you’re ready.”
Morgan cleared her throat and stared at the camera as if it was actually capturing her, although the little red light was off.
“This is Morgan Jensen, on location at the West Valley Youth Shelter. This facility has been rocked by tragedy twice in the past ten days. Suicide is a growing problem among the youth of the Salt Lake Valley, and nowhere is it more acute and more heartbreaking than it is among those kids who don’t have a place to call home. We’ve been talking to the staff here at the shelter about what causes homeless youth suicide, and what can be done to prevent it. What they told us may surprise you. We’ll have the whole story on the evening report, tonight, right here on KUTV.” She paused. “That should work. Phil or Brenda might ask a couple questions, but if not, that should make a good teaser.”
“Sounds awesome,” Stan said.
“You’re nothing if not supportive, my dear,” Morgan said with a laugh. “How long before we go live?”
“Looks like about a minute ten seconds. We’ve got the link, and we’re ready to go.”
She double-checked her mic and began to count down the last sixty seconds in her head. She was already thinking about how she might use the afternoon to try and talk to some of the kids here.
There were less than thirty seconds from the handoff, and Stan was suddenly looking grave. He had his hand to his earpiece, and he was staring into space. “Morgan, you need to hear this,” he said, tapping his earpiece. “Something weird is going on…”
Morgan was just reaching for the mute switch on her belt pack when the sound of screaming and crashing came from down the hallway. Despite her curiosity about what Stan was hearing on his earpiece, the sound made her jump almost out of her skin. This wasn’t somebody dropping a stack of dishes. This was something much, much worse. Turning to look behind her, she could see nothing but the open door of the cafeteria. They had passed it earlier in their tour, and the staff in there were making lunch for the thirty or so kids currently in the facility.
Later she would call it instinct. By all rights she shouldn’t have abandoned the live shot that was coming up in just seconds. But something told her that what was happening through that door down the hall was far more important, and far more consequential, than the live bumper for her report on tonight’s nightly news.
“Live shot’s off!” she yelled over her shoulder. “Follow me!” But as she suspected, Stan had already seen her moving, and was detaching the camera from the tripod.
“Rolling!” he shouted, and was only a half-dozen steps behind her as they darted down the hall. Kids who were in the day rooms were pouring out and heading toward the commotion—tough looking kids, both male and female.
The dining room was separated from the main corridor by a pair of swinging doors. The room was empty, but as Morgan crashed through the door, she could pinpoint the commotion. The door from the lunchroom into the kitchen in the back was propped open, and Morgan could see that the staff had just been loading the day’s lunch items into the steam tables when… something… had happened. A tray of lasagna was smeared across the floor, and steam rose from it in lazy swirls.
Whatever was happening was through the open door of the kitchen. And the screaming now was so loud and continuous that it even gave Morgan’s hard-nosed reporting instincts pause. She stopped to take stock of the situation, but a handful of kids were already behind her, and pushing their way into the lunchroom. A half dozen of them burst past Morgan and her cameraman, heading for the kitchen.
One girl in particular was leading the charge. Morgan glanced at her as she darted past. She was probably fourteen, but looked like she had already endured a lifetime of street fights, and could scrap with the best. The girl didn’t look back and was sprinting toward the open kitchen door—right into the screaming and crashing that was pouring out like a flood.
“Don’t go in there!” Morgan screamed. But it was too late. The girl was already launching herself through the door. Morgan’s instincts kicked back in, and she was only three steps behind the girl when she too entered the kitchen.
Stan, I hope you’re getting this, she thought.
The scene in the kitchen was total chaos and made the spilled lasagna in the lunch room look quaint in comparison.
Morgan recognized the man instantly. He was the janitor, who had given the corridor a once-over, to prepare for her live shot. He had seemed like a nice older gentleman at the time, but that wasn’t what he seemed like now.
In his hand was a broken broomstick, the end of it as sharp as a spear, and (oh, God, Morgan thought) it was covered in blood. The apparent victim of his attack was one of the old ladies who volunteered at the shelter, making food for the kids. She was lying on the floor, and it was clearly her screams they had heard. She was grasping her belly with one hand, and her neck with the other. Blood seeped from both wounds, and it was already pooling around her on the cold tile floor.
There were three other kitchen workers, and they were separated now from the man with the broken handle by an industrial steel table, covered with pots and pans and prepared trays of food, both hot and cold. Much of this had fallen to the floor, and the crazed man was pushing more of it off even as they watched. He was screaming now and laughing manically.
Morgan reached for the young girl, who had stopped in front of her, just inside the kitchen door. Her fingers grazed the back of her flannel shirt, but just missed getting a grip.
“No, stay away from him,” a man in a hairnet and white apron screamed. But it was too late. The young girl was harnessing a lifetime of anger, perhaps imagining one of the many men who had used and abused her in her short life. She rushed the janitor, and Morgan was absolutely sure that it was going to be the end of her.
But the kid was slick and wily. As the janitor jabbed at her with the handle, she moved to the right as gracefully as a ballet dancer, and the spear just passed through the flapping front of her loose shirt. She impacted the man with a pile drive shoulder that would have flattened any normal assailant. But this man, despite looking old and frail, seemed to have superhuman strength. He grasped her by the collar, and using her own momentum, swung her around his body, and launched her over the gleaming metal table. The girl went down on the far side in a shattered bowl of lettuce, bottles of salad dressing, and steaming piles of green beans.
Morgan was only dimly aware of Stan, who had passed into the kitchen and was now against the back wall, his camera held to his face. She could hear the digital whir as Stan adjusted the lens and kept recording.
“This way, come on!” she yelled at the three standing kitchen workers and gestured toward the door. They were already stepping over the downed girl, and were heading for the door, where they collided with two boys, probably aged twelve and sixteen. Morgan didn’t see whether the workers got out, because she was on her knees, trying to help up the girl, who seemed stunned, but uninjured.
The two boys were already past her, and were jumping the man.
“God damn it, stay away from him!” Morgan yelled, as the girl finally got back on her feet. But it was too late. The janitor had already driven his stick into the shoulder of the older of the two boys, and he had gone down. To her horror, she saw the old man pick up a cleaver from the table, and lift his arm to take a swing at the younger boy. The kid grabbed the man’s wrist, and was forced back on the table, the sharp blade dangerously close to his face.
Morgan was suddenly aware that she was standing next to the stove. And on it was a gallon saucepan full of water that was at a full, rolling boil. Without a second thought, she grabbed the pan, took three steps forward, and dashed the contents directly into the man’s face. Her aim was square, but some of the boiling water also splashed onto the boy’s hands, and he cried out. It caused him to let go of the man’s wrist, but luckily, the blade came down just over the boy’s left shoulder, actually piercing the steel table. And there it stayed, as the boy rolled onto the floor, and the assailant stumbled back against a row of pots and pans, spinning and wailing like a wounded tiger. The sound of the pans falling punctuated the man’s demented screams as he clawed at his face, which was already as red as a tomato and blistering.
All at once, the man went limp, and crashed to the floor among the pots and pans. And for just a moment, he was still and silent, a look of shock and horror on his face. All the man’s fight suddenly left him, and he was still and silent.
The kitchen, in that instant, was like a giant lung that had expelled all breath. All Morgan could hear was the groaning of the stabbed woman on the floor, and the gasping of the two injured boys. The janitor himself looked as still as death. But then he took in a sudden, gasping breath, and let out a scream, his eyes darting wildly around the room.
It’s like he’s waking up from a trance, Morgan thought, even as she stepped back in horror. The burns on the man’s face were swelling into blisters, and his irises were strange and cloudy, as if he hadn’t even closed his eyes against the burning water. What she had done filled her with sudden horror, as the man’s face transformed into a mask of agony. He began to writhe and wail.
No longer was he a threat. Now he was just a janitor again. The same man that had cleaned the corridor before their live shot. Old and frail and confused, he writhed on the floor, clawing at his face, as if he had no idea what had happened to him.
Outside in the hall, a few minutes later, Morgan looked at her cameraman.
“Dammit, we missed the segment!”
Stan looked at her, his face still pale from the violence they had witnessed. The director and some of the staff were in the kitchen now, and had secured the assailant while others called the police. “It doesn’t matter,” Stan said. “They wouldn’t have gone to our live shot, anyway.”
“What? Why not?” she asked, noticing that there was a tadpole shaped burn on her right hand, where the boiling water had managed to get her as well.
“It’s what I was trying to tell you. I was listening to the newsroom chatter, and I guess something crazy has happened. I couldn’t hear what it was exactly. Maybe a shooting at the Chuck-A-Rama. Something like that. They’re covering it live now.”
“We have to plug back in. Can you re-establish the link?”
“Yeah, but it will take me a minute.”
“Never mind,” she said, pulling out her cell phone and dialing the newsroom. To her surprise, it took a couple of tries to get the call to go through, as if the cell phone circuits were all overloaded. Finally, she got the switchboard on the phone.
“Hey Pat, this is Morgan. Can you put me through to Rhonda, please?”
“I’m afraid she’s a bit busy, Morgan,” the phone buzzed in her ear. “I’m not sure what is going on, but things in the newsroom seem to be going crazy. I can see them in there, and they’re running around like it’s the end of the world. I get the feeling that something big’s happening, but they never tell me anything. Let me try to get her to call you back.”
The receptionist hung up on the reporter without saying goodbye.
“What the hell is going on?” Morgan said, letting her phone drop. She looked at Stan. “Any luck with the uplink?”
He still looked shaken. “No, none at all. I can’t get a connection. The newsroom isn’t responding.”
The shelter’s director had sealed off the lunchroom, and one of the staff with some medical training was in there with the injured, while some boys from the shelter were still holding down the janitor. His wailing had turned into a whimper now, but had not stopped.
“Is there a TV here?” Morgan asked the director, as he was dashing back with first aid supplies. He looked shocked, but he gestured toward the far end of the hall.
They found the common room empty. Whatever kids had been in there were now loitering around outside the lunchroom, talking in low voices. Morgan crossed to the TV and quickly switched it on with the remote that was held to the side with Velcro. She tuned into her station’s broadcast. The face on the screen was one of the two noon anchors, Phil King. And the look on his face immediately struck Morgan speechless. She walked within a few inches of the TV, staring hard at the picture.
“To repeat,” the anchor said, “we have no idea what is happening, or why, but the reports of violence that we’re getting are all over the map. The police and 911 are jammed. We have a report of a massacre at a hardware store that seems to have been done by someone with a chainsaw. The police scanners are full of reports of violence breaking out all over the city. From our twenty-first-floor studios here in downtown, we can see smoke rising from a half dozen locations around the city. We believe that a high-rise residential tower to our south is on fire. And even from here, the sound of sirens is coming from every direction.”
“Stan, are you seeing this?” Morgan asked, feeling numb and confused. The man didn’t answer, but she could feel him there, staring over her shoulder.
“We’re attempting to make some sense of the reports that we’re getting, but right now, it just seems random. Nobody official is saying the word terrorism, but it feels like that may be what is happening. And if it is, these would have to be multiple, coordinated attacks throughout the city. Keep it tuned here, and we will bring you more details as soon as we can.”
There was a live shot in the screen’s corner that looked like it was from the roof of the studio, and the smoke from fires burning all around the city could be seen rising into the afternoon sky. They had patched in the audio as well, and even from the roof the sound of the sirens and people yelling on the street below was clear.
“We’re trying to get a response—any response—from civil authorities,” the anchor was saying, “but so far we haven’t successfully gotten a call through to anyone. For now, all we can tell you is that you should stay in your homes, and keep the television tuned here…”
She turned to the cameraman. “Stan, we both know Phil. I’ve never seen him this agitated.”
“What worries me more,” Stan said, coming to her side, “Is the expression on everybody’s face. Did you see them?”
Morgan looked at the TV again. They were on a wide shot, and there were two other colleagues at the desk, and she was certain they both looked terrified. They were just sitting there with blank looks on their faces, scanning their prompters and the papers that were being pushed across the desk. Even over Phil’s rambling she could hear the voices of several other staff, chattering in the background, off camera. But she couldn’t make out any words.
Her phone rang, and she snatched it up, putting a finger in her ear to block out the sound of the TV.
It was her producer, Rhonda, who barked at her with no introduction.
“Morgan, we need you and Stan to get to the Grand America Hotel. It’s on fire. We need footage, and we need it…” The phone crackled, and then cut off. She tried to redial, but kept getting a rapid busy signal.
Morgan felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle.
“Stan, we need to go. Pack up your equipment. We need to go right now.”
“But don’t we need to wait for the police? They’ll want to talk to…”
“Fuck that,” Morgan snapped, surprised at her own use of profanity. She never swore, especially not in a professional capacity, and the look on Stan’s face showed he was equally shocked.
“Listen, Stan, something huge is happening. I don’t know what it is. But they want us at the Grand American Hotel. They said it’s on fire.”
“Jesus,” Stan said. He swore more often, so Morgan wasn’t shocked.
As Stan rushed to pack up his equipment, he had to push past a knot of kids who had gathered in the doorway. They were all staring at her, and Morgan sensed they had probably been there for some time. Their looks were strange and haunted, as if they sensed that something important was coming unraveled around them. They had all led lives where unraveling was familiar, so the look they gave the reporter was one of sad understanding. And resignation.
She still felt those eyes on her as they rushed out of the building and toward their van.
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.