June 15, 12:10 pm
“Please hurry, honey,” Michelle was saying into his ear. “I’m scared and I…”
The phone call suddenly dropped, and the music Michelle’s call had interrupted resumed automatically, playing through Pil’s wireless earbuds. David Byrne was singing “Naked,” one of his favorite songs.
Pil stood in front of the fish tank, his phone in one hand and the fish food in the other, staring at the screen and waiting for Michelle to call back. When she didn’t, he didn’t think too much about it. Yeah, she had sounded worried, but they had all been worried since last night. He knew he could finish up here in a few minutes, and then it was only a five-minute walk back to Keith’s house. Whatever she was worried about could wait that long.
Finally, he slipped the phone back into his pocket and finished sprinkling the fish food on the top of the water. “Michelle’s been trying to get us to adopt a dog, Wanda,” he said to the big Tetra that was staring at him. “But we’re both too irresponsible for a dog. I can barely remember to feed you.”
Besides, if we’re going to get another pet, I want a cat, he thought, smiling that he didn’t want to say such a thing out loud to Wanda.
David Byrne finished up his song, and the next one up on the random play list was a B-52’s tune, “Roam.” He couldn’t help but dance to that tune whenever it came on, so as he was finishing up the dishes that they had left in the sink, he shook his curly hair back and forth to the tune.
What could possibly go wrong in the world, when you have the B-52’s? he thought.
And yet, Howard Gunderson had seemed very adamant that something indeed was about to go wrong. Something major—and the terror he had seen on the young man’s face had seemed very real. It was easy to dismiss Howard’s rantings as the product of a disturbed mind, but Pil couldn’t help but think there was something to it. It was an aching doubt that no B-52’s tune could dispel.
His earbuds still wedged firmly in his ears, Pil locked up the house and started down the street.
The sun was incredibly bright, and the air seemed humid but crystal clear. He looked up in the sky, and saw that there were only a few clouds visible through the trees that lined 3rd Avenue.
What a day, he thought. And yet…
There was a strange smell in the air. He thought at first that maybe it was the smell of someone barbecuing in a backyard, but the smell wasn’t quite right. It was more acrid than charcoal, more like burning rubber than anything that would be used to start a barbecue. He wrinkled his broad nose at the smell and looked around. But there was no visible smoke in the air, and nothing on the street looked to be out of the ordinary.
That was when he saw the neighborhood boy.
He was a kid Pil didn’t know by name, but had seen playing in the streets and in front of a house about a block down from theirs from time to time this summer. He lifted his hand to wave at the kid, who always seemed friendly. But the kid didn’t wave back.
It was only then that Pil saw the broken slat of a white picket fence in the kid’s hand. He turned to stare at Pil as he walked closer, and Pil noticed he was standing over what looked like a pile of clothes at his feet.
Slowly, Pil reached up and took out his left earbud. The music paused…
The first thing he heard were sirens, but they were a long way off. Then he heard a whimpering sound, and he wondered if a dog was hurt somewhere. He kept walking forward, and the boy was staring at him now.
And then the pile of clothes moved.
The suddenness with which the picture snapped into focus in his mind was enough to freeze him in his tracks. All at once the pile on the ground was no longer just clothes, but a little girl. She was perhaps four, and the whimpering sound he heard wasn’t from an injured dog, but from her. There was blood all over her face, and a gash that went down her neck. She didn’t see Pil at all, but put up one trembling hand toward the boy who stood over her, as if she was pleading, or somehow signaling surrender.
Pil’s eyes snapped back to the boy, and although the kid continued to stare into the big man’s face, he slowly lifted the picket above his head.
“Hey!” Pil said, breaking into a run.
And then the boy grinned at Pil. A grin that was so surreal and malevolent that Pil almost stumbled as he ran. The two kids were still a couple houses away down the block, and Pil was running now. But not fast enough. The boy swung the stick and Pil saw a spray of blood fly from the girl’s scalp, leaving an arc across the sidewalk.
Pil was only ten feet away, but then the boy broke and ran.
He only had a split second to decide whether to go after the boy, or help the girl, and he was knew it wasn’t any real choice at all. He didn’t know how badly the girl was hurt, but he had to do something.
Damn, that kid is fast, he thought, as the boy raced away. He was gone even before he got to the little girl, who was screaming now, and trying to wipe blood from her eyes. To Pil’s relief, it didn’t look like she was mortally wounded, but she would definitely need a stitch or two in her scalp, and someone needed to look at that neck wound.
“Get away from her, you son of a bitch!” a woman screamed, running out of a house across the street. It looked like she had a fireplace poker in her hand, and as Pil stood dumbfounded, she stabbed the poker at him making wordless sounds, until he stepped back, his hands in the air. The woman gathered the crying girl under her arm like a sack of laundry, and backed away, holding the poker between them like a spear. She didn’t break eye contact with Pil until she had the crying girl in the house. The sound of the lock was like a gunshot.
Standing alone in the street, Pil felt the insanity of the scene settle onto his shoulders, and realized he had been too shocked to even speak to the woman. The whole strange scene had played out in only about twenty seconds. Slowly, he reached up and pulled the other earbud free.
It was as if he had suddenly surfaced after being underwater. What had looked like a beautiful sunny day, with scattered clouds and a soft breeze, suddenly filled him with dread.
There were sirens going off now, all around. He could still hear some that were distant, but now they were coming closer, and he had time to wonder if the woman who had scooped up the little girl had called 911. He knew he could explain his way out of it, but every instinct in his body was now telling him he needed to get out of there. And fast.
For an instant, he almost thought he could hear Howard Gunderson’s voice in his head.
This is what I warned you about, you idiot, the voice said.
A portentous column of smoke, like something out of a dystopian film, suddenly wafted over the rooftops to the south, and settled down onto the street like a malevolent black tentacle. The smell of it was much stronger than the burning rubber he had smelled before.
He turned and ran toward Michelle, toward Keith. He felt this gnawing fear in his gut that they were both in danger, and he didn’t even realize he had dropped his two-hundred-dollar earbuds on the sidewalk as he ran.
At a house less than a block from Keith’s place, he heard raised voices. It was a house where he knew an elderly couple lived with their adult son, who was a disabled veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The doors and the windows were all closed, but the voices were loud enough to penetrate the thick walls and reach him on the street. He slowed long enough to capture some words. He couldn’t get anything specific, but he could hear the tone. The fear. The hatred and the anger.
Don’t get involved, he thought, and kept running. It’s just a domestic disturbance. That’s all. You need to keep going.
As he rounded the corner and looked up toward Keith’s house, the first thing he noticed was the empty street. The cop who had been guarding the house was gone, and he wondered if that might have been one of the sirens he had heard just moments ago. That fact, more than the violence of the boy, or the arguing through the closed door, sent a chill of fear up Pil’s spine.
He crashed through the door to find Michelle and Keith in the living room. Keith was glued to the news broadcast and barely looked up. But Michelle rushed across the living room and met him in the hall, throwing her arms around him.
“Oh, Meowi,” she said, and he could see tears in her eyes. “I was so worried. I’ve been trying to call you.”
He took both her hands and looked right into her eyes. His presence was enough to calm her.
“What in the hell is going on? Where is the cop that’s supposed to be watching the house?”
“I don’t know. He left right after… Right after things starting going to hell.”
“What do you mean? What’s going to hell?”
“Pil, everything!” she cried. “It’s what Howard told us was coming. It’s like the city is going crazy. The news is filled with it. They’re saying it’s terrorists, but I don’t think they really know. They all seem confused.”
Michelle led him to the couch, and they all sat down together, with Pil in the middle. Both Michelle and Keith immediately pulled themselves close to him, and he could feel the fear radiating off them both.
“Where were you!” Michelle said, and he could see her tears were close to the surface once again.
“I… I didn’t know,” he said. “I didn’t realize until I was on the way back that anything was wrong.” Quickly, he told them what he had seen, starting with the boy and the white picket, and ending with the screaming in the house just a half a block away.
“That’s the woman with the son who came back from Afghanistan, isn’t it?” Keith asked. “I’ve met him. He’s very nice. He lost a leg over there, but he doesn’t seem to have PTSD or anything. He always stops to say hi if he sees me and Richard on the porch.”
Pil didn’t know what to say, and since he hadn’t heard any more than voices, he didn’t want to worry them both by saying how violent those voices had sounded. He knew that by now, something horrible had happened in that house.
“Maybe I should call the police,” Pil said. “Let them know they need to check on them.”
“You can try,” Keith said. “But the cell phones are overloaded, and even the house phone just gives us a busy signal.”
“I tried to call my mom,” Michelle said. “I couldn’t get a call through.”
Michelle suddenly stood up. “This is what Howard warned us about. This is why he said we needed to get out. He was right, Pil! We need to go! Let’s get in Big Bird and get the fuck out of this city!”
Pil pulled her back down next to him. “Honey, we can’t. I don’t have the SUV. I left it at home.”
“You did? Why?” Michelle sounded dumbfounded.
“I told you I was going to. I figured we could walk home later. Or that we’d just stay here. I didn’t think we’d need the car.”
“We don’t,” Keith said, and the sound of his voice made them both jump. “We’re not going anywhere. And if we need to, Richard’s car is still in the garage. But I mean it. I’m not leaving. I told you that last night.”
Pil took a breath and looked at Keith, who was still staring at the TV. Pil hadn’t even noticed it, since Michelle had been so frantic when he walked in the door. But now he focused on it, and could see a live shot, which looked like it was from a roof in downtown Salt Lake City. There were at least a half dozen fires he could see in that one shot, burning all over the downtown, including one huge one, that the anchor was saying was the Grand America Hotel.
He put a hand on Keith’s forearm, hoping to calm him. And to his surprise, Keith lifted Pil’s big hand to his face and held it against his lips. He could feel the man trembling.
“Maybe it’s good that our cars are separated a bit,” Pil said. “Keith’s right. If we need a vehicle, we can use Richard’s car. And we’ll have Big Bird as a backup.”
“You’re not going to be happy in Richard’s RAV4,” Michelle said, and to his surprise, there was actually a little levity in her voice.
“I’ll manage,” he said with a smile.
“Like I told you,” Keith said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
As Pil looked at Keith, who was still holding his hand against his face, he once again heard Howard Gunderson’s voice in his head. This time, it was the words he had said the night before, standing in the rain.
“I need you to know that you’re in danger. Something is going to happen here. In this city. Something really bad. And you need to leave.”
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.