June 15, 1:34 pm
When ancient predators prowled the night, humanity’s ancestors instinctively huddled together under the trees. When thunder crashed and the forests burned, they fled—but never alone. And when wolves circled and they could no longer run, they stood back to back—to fight and die together.
The living have always found their last solace and shelter in the arms of the people they love. Even in the ruins of Vesuvius, archaeologists found couples and families clinging together as they were buried alive, their bodies preserved for the ages by the falling rain of ash and fire.
As Salt Lake City descended into madness on that bright summer day in June, some citizens broke and fled, in cars overflowing with family, friends, and photo albums. But the vast majority retreated to their homes, huddling under blankets and in darkened rooms, watching their TVs the way their Neanderthal ancestors would stare into the fire, waiting for the predators to depart.
An hour and a half after it all began, Michelle and her two men were still clinging close to one another on the couch. Pil had slipped to the floor and had one hand wrapped around Michelle’s left calf. Keith had his head in Michelle’s lap, and another arm draped over Pil’s shoulder. Michelle noticed that, unlike herself and Pil, Keith wasn’t watching the TV, although he had also refused to let her shut it off. Instead, he just buried his face behind Pil’s neck, listening intently, but finding some small safety in the darkness behind his closed eyes.
Each minute that passed brought news of new outrages, new madness. And the worst of it was, Michelle knew, that the TV was only showing them the tiniest fraction of what was really happening out there. The anchors knew this as well, even as they explained that the systems designed to keep everyone safe were quickly breaking down. There were not enough police to respond to all the reports of violence. The phones were still out over much of the city, both cellular and land lines. Most places still had power, but that could be the next to go.
Worst of all, there were now reports that some of the madness was actually affecting the first responders. In one case, a police officer had been seen opening fire on a crowd, and had only been stopped when a fellow officer took him down. A fireman had turned his hose on men atop their ladders, blasting them free like spiders blown from their webs. Before he was stopped, three firemen had been killed, one of them falling into the flames he was fighting.
The horror of it was almost more than Michelle could bear.
At least we’re here together, she thought, looking at the two men. But I’m not sure there is really any safety in that.
She kept replaying in her head Howard’s warning. He had clearly seen this coming, but he had told them so damnably little. There were few hints in his prediction of disaster that gave any clue what was actually going to happen. Or more importantly, why.
When the phone rang at 1:45, all three of them jumped as if a knife-wielding stranger had just burst into the room. Michelle had tried over and over, without success, to get a phone call though in that first hour—both on her cell and on the house phone. So the fact that Keith’s land line was suddenly working shocked them all so badly that it took three rings for Michelle to lurch across the room and pick up the receiver.
“Hello?” she said tentatively, as if the person on the other end could still be that homicidal stranger.
“Oh, honey, thank God!”
Michelle instantly recognized the voice of her mother. And then her father was on the line as well. He must have picked up the other extension.
“Baby doll, are you okay?” he asked. “We’ve been trying for an hour to get you on your cell phone. We finally decided to see if you were at Keith’s house.”
Michelle couldn’t believe how relieved she felt to hear their voices. And she tried to put on a brave face, even though her heart was battering in the cage of her chest like a trapped sparrow.
“We’re fine here,” Michelle said. “Are you okay there? The news said they don’t think whatever is happening here is extending up to Ogden.”
“No, no, we’re just fine,” her Mom said, the relief finally taking the shrill edge out of her voice. “Nothing is out of the ordinary here. It’s like it’s all happening in Salt Lake. Are Pil and Keith with you?”
“They’re both here. They’re both fine.”
“Keith must be devastated,” her father said. “All this so soon after losing Richard. Is he okay?”
Michelle couldn’t suppress a smile. How like her parents to ask about Keith before Pil. They loved Pil, but in many ways Keith had become like an adopted son to them, going all the way back to Junior High. They had known him far longer than they had known Pil, and they made it a point to invite him up there for dinner whenever Michelle and Pil were visiting. They had even invited Richard a few times. Although, unsurprisingly, her parents had never warmed up to him.
“Keith’s fine. He’s emotional, but he’s doing okay.”
“Thank God for that. And how is Pil?”
“Keeping everything together, and keeping us all safe, like he always does,” she said. “Are you watching this on TV?”
“Yeah, same channel as you, probably,” her dad said. “KUTV seems to have the best coverage. It’s all so crazy. They’re reporting two plane crashes, and they say that the airport is shut down.”
“Yeah, we didn’t see them. But we heard one for sure.”
“And they say there are fires burning all over the city,” her father continued, barely pausing for air. “One is at that nice hotel we stayed in for your cousin’s wedding!”
“Honey,” her mother broke in, “why don’t you get out of there? Come up here. It’s got to be safer.”
Michelle sighed. “Well, we’ve talked about it. But I doubt it’s safer than just staying inside. We’re just holed up here, and the Avenues seem relatively calm. I don’t know if it’s worth taking the risk and leaving the house.”
“But it has to be safer here!”
“I’m sure it is, Mom. But actually getting there could be the problem.”
“Maybe. But Baby Doll, we have a bad feeling,” Her dad continued, “and we just want you to be close.”
Michelle swallowed. “I think Keith needs us here.”
“Well, bring him with you!”
“I would, mom, but he doesn’t want to leave.”
That dumbfounded both her parents for an instant. “For the love of God, why not?” her mother asked, the shrill edge having returned to her voice.
Michelle debated for a second telling them at least something about what had happened the night before. But she knew there was no way to start down that road without telling them everything—and that would only make them more frantic than they already were. And besides, if she told them everything, they’d surely decide that all three of them had lost their minds. They’d probably assume that whatever madness had infected the city had them in its clutches too.
“I promise we’ll talk about it, Mom,” she said, hoping that would satisfy them. “But try not to worry. We’re safe here. We don’t even have a front window. It’s all still boarded up. Nobody is getting in here, and we’re perfectly safe.”
“Please talk about it, honey,” her father said. “Neither of us are going to sleep until you’re here with us.”
For the first time since she picked up the phone, Michelle looked over at Pil and Keith on the couch. Both of them were sitting up now, looking over the back edge of the sofa and watching her with strangely intense eyes. She suddenly felt self-conscious and unsure of what she should say to her parents.
“Mom, I think we should clear the line. Please don’t worry. Everything is fine, and I think it’s just going to make you more upset if we keep talking. How about if I call you in an hour or two? After we have a chance to talk.”
“Honey, I’m afraid that we won’t be able to get another call through after this. This one might have been a fluke. If you hang up, we may not be able to talk again until…” her mother’s voice faded away.
“…until this is over,” her father said, finishing the thought with a positive spin she didn’t think he really felt. “Let’s just leave the line open.”
“No, Dad, I don’t think we should do that. If the phones are out because they are overloaded, we need to keep them clear. People may be calling 911, and we shouldn’t be keeping a line tied up.”
“It sounds like people are calling for help and not getting any,” her mother said, and her voice sounded sad and hopeless, even through the scratchy land-line.
It took Michelle another five minutes to convince her mom and dad to hang up the phone, and when they finally did, they were both crying, and still begging her to come up north where they could be safe. She again promised them she’d talk to Pil and Keith about it. Finally, she was able to hang up.
As she stood by the phone, Pil extricated himself from the couch and gave her a hug. She took it gratefully and felt comfortable in the silence. There really wasn’t anything to say. She was just grateful for his strong, heavy arms, and the fresh smell of his chest.
Finally, he kissed her on the forehead, and then without a word, he went around to check all the doors and windows once again. He had already made sure they were all locked and all the blinds were pulled, but it seemed that he needed something to do. And walking the perimeter was better than just sitting there.
She looked at the clock. It was now after 2:00 pm—two hours since this all began. The news anchors were looking more weary than they should, as if they had been through more in these two hours than they would in a year of normal reporting.
Michelle sat down and used the remote to turn the volume down, until it was just barely audible.
Pil was glancing through the curtains in the living room now. There were still two intact windows looking out onto the front porch, one on either side of the plywood that he had nailed up over the broken glass. Pil had pulled back the curtain in the one on the right, and was nervously looking out toward the street.
“Do you see anything?” Michelle asked.
“No. Nothing. Everything looks really calm. I just saw someone run past, but I think pretty much everybody in the neighborhood is either still at work, or is holed up in their houses. There definitely aren’t any kids out there.”
“Any smoke?” Keith asked.
“Yeah. Some. It seems to drift by in waves.”
“I can smell it. And it’s making my eyes burn,” Keith said.
Michelle realized that this was the first time since Pil returned that all three of them were even this far apart. Keith sat alone on the couch, rubbing his eyes. She stood in the archway to the hall, and Pil stood at the window, peeking out through the curtains. The sudden sense of isolation that flowed over her was beyond any reason.
We’re still together, aren’t we? she thought. We don’t have to be touching to be safe. Do we? But even being huddled close together wouldn’t keep them safe if what was happening out there decided to break through a door or a window.
We have to get out of here, she thought. Mom and Dad are right. This is crazy. We have to go.
Just then, the silence was broken by a string of gunshots, somewhere outside. Strangely, the sound didn’t alarm Michelle at first. They sounded so innocent. Just a rhythmic pop, pop, pop, like firecrackers. There was a pause, and then another string of distant pops—this time, perhaps closer. She glanced at Keith, and he was pale as a sheet.
“Honey, you need to get away from the window,” Michelle said. But Pil was already moving. He let the curtain fall and stood in front of the relative safety of the half inch plywood that covered the picture window. They heard screams and voices, running past the house on the street. Then two more gunshots, much closer, followed by silence.
She caught Pil’s eye and saw that he had a strange look on his face. She thought she knew exactly what he was thinking. Pil took a deep breath and looked at Keith.
“K, I have to ask… Do you have a gun in the house? Did you or Richard ever have one?”
Keith looked appalled. “No, there is no gun in the house. Richard used to shoot trap and skeet when he was younger, and we had a shotgun when I first moved in. But he got rid of it years ago. I don’t think he was sure it even worked. He hadn’t shot it in probably thirty years or something.” Keith looked truly afraid, as he glanced back and forth between her and Pil. “Do you have one at your house?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Michelle said, finally relinquishing her grip on the door frame. She hadn’t realized she had been squeezing it ever since the shots rang out. But when she let go, the muscles in her hand ached, and she had to shake it to prevent a cramp.
Pil looked contemplative and flexed his hands and jaw nervously.
On the TV was a helicopter shot of what looked like I-80 west, maybe somewhere past the airport. The road was jammed with cars, and she couldn’t even tell if they were moving. She instinctively grabbed the remote and brought up the volume. The reporter in the helicopter was shouting to be heard over the roar of the engines.
“… reports that many people are fleeing the city. I-80 is jammed to the west of the city, and there is reportedly an accident in Parley’s Canyon that has stopped traffic there in both directions. The civil authorities are asking us to remind everyone that it is much safer to just stay in your homes until the situation on the ground is brought under control. Let me repeat that, if you are considering trying to evacuate Salt Lake City, please be advised that the police and the Office of the Governor are asking that you remain in your homes, and monitor these broadcasts…”
The shot suddenly cut to a scene of unknown mayhem. A dozen bodies were dead in the street, in front of a Safeway supermarket that Michelle didn’t recognize. Heavily armored police were waving the cameraman back, with their guns held at the ready. To their credit, the cameraman and reporter faded back, since it was obvious it would take very little provocation to make those cops open fire.
“It all looks like some kind of disaster movie,” Pil said. Michelle and Keith just looked on in tense silence.
The scene cut again, and the camera was on the Grand America Hotel, which was engulfed in flames all the way to the rooftop. Michelle recognized the reporter on the screen. It was Morgan Jensen. Pil called her “the blond Bob Woodward,” and had even joked that she would be his next girlfriend, if Michelle ever left him. Jensen was an excellent investigative journalist. Her series on underground prostitution and gambling parlors in the city last month had gone off like a bombshell in local politics.
Even though the hotel fire raged behind her, she was ignoring it, and the efforts to fight it. Instead, she was now working her way through the crowd, trying to get random people to tell her what they had seen. For ten minutes, the trio watched as those in the crowd told Jensen their horror stories. Everyone had seen at least something out of the ordinary—a neighbor or a friend that appeared to have gone crazy, a random act of violence in the street, or a dead body lying unattended. It became clear to Michelle that the reason the people were there at the site of the fire wasn’t because they were gawking at the disaster, but because they had all fled something, and sought out the company of strangers, to create a sense of safety. Something in human nature made people seek a crowd when they felt threatened. Strangely, she wished the three of them were in that crowd.
Michelle turned the volume down again.
“Guys. We need to talk. I think it’s time we seriously think about getting the fuck out of here.”
She expected instantaneous resistance from both Pil and Keith, but to her surprise, Pil just looked at her with warring emotions trying to gain a purchase on his broad features. Finally, Keith looked up.
“Mish, I told you, no. I need to stay here. You guys can go if you need to. But Richard is here. Somewhere. I need to stay.”
Pil quietly walked over and sat next to Keith, and put one big arm around his friend’s shoulders. When the two of them are together, Keith looks like such a little boy, Michelle thought. But even as she watched, she saw Keith’s weight shift, and he leaned into Pil’s thick torso.
I recognize that gesture, Michelle thought. It’s what I do when I’m feeling lost and vulnerable. Keith is trying to find a spot under Pil’s wing, the same way I do. Does Pil realize how in love with him Keith is?
As she watched Keith shiver and draw closer to her husband, she also realized that no matter what Keith said, he didn’t want them to leave without him. And especially, he didn’t want Pil to leave. Right now, what little sense of safety her childhood friend had was resting on the broad shoulders of her husband. Keith loved Michelle, but he was who he was, and now that Richard was gone, he needed the protection of a strong man. That same need might have been a big part of why he had been with Richard. No matter how strong and independent Keith liked to pretend to be, part of him was still a vulnerable little boy, needing his daddy.
Seeing that vulnerability in him, Michelle felt new tears spring to her eyes. “Pea, we’re not leaving here without you,” she said. “You know that’s something neither of us would ever do.”
Keith didn’t speak, but she could see his body visibly relax at that assurance.
“But I think Michelle is right,” Pil said, gently, one hand stroking the back of Keith’s head. “If what Howard said is true, this isn’t going to blow over. It’s only going to get worse. K, we really do need to go.”
“Keith, honey,” Michelle said, sinking down on the carpet in front of the couch and taking both men’s hands. “Are you sure Richard is here? Do you sense him now?”
A wave of anguish washed over Keith’s face before he was able to repress it. “No, I don’t. Not now. But I know he has to be close.” She could hear hope trying desperately to find its way into his voice. “He’ll be back. I can’t explain how I know that, but I do. I’m certain. Richard won’t leave me, any more than you guys will.”
“Maybe if we go, Richard will follow us,” Michelle suggested.
“Somehow, I don’t think he can,” Keith said, a hint of panic in his voice. “I think he has to stay here.”
“In this house?”
“No. Not just the house,” Keith said, his lip trembling. “Maybe just this city. Or maybe it’s bigger. I don’t know. But I don’t think he can go far.”
Michelle didn’t know what to say to that. It all seemed like part of some grand delusion that Keith was building about his dead husband. But at the same time, she instinctively believed what Howard had told her about the danger they were facing. Was it that much harder to believe the other things he said? For instance, that Richard had sent Keith a message? Or that Keith would instinctively know much more than she did?
“Okay, honey. We’ll stay. At least for now,” Michelle said. And she caught Pil’s eyes over the top of Keith’s fuzzy head. She knew he was fighting inside himself with whether to agree to Keith’s demand, or continue to argue the point. Finally, he just kissed Keith on the top of his head.
“Okay,” Pil said, resignedly. “I’m going to go check the backyard, and make sure everything there is secure.” He detached himself carefully from Keith, who immediately tightened his grip on Michelle’s hand, as if to compensate for Pil’s loss. His eyes looked exhausted, and she felt him sag deeper into the couch..
Five minutes later, Pil was back.
“Everything okay?” Michelle asked.
“Yeah, everything is secure. Nobody in the backyard. The smoke seems worse, but otherwise, we’re still okay.” He knelt behind his wife and squeezed her shoulders. She brought one hand up to take his, but was surprised when, rather than taking her hands, she felt him press something into her palm. He kissed her head and sat back on the couch.
A few minutes later, when she was sure that Keith wasn’t watching, she surreptitiously looked at what Pil had put in her hand. Being careful not to let him see, she opened her palm. A tiny scrap of paper lay there. She unfolded it and saw Pil’s handwriting.
You’re right. We need to get the hell out of here. If things don’t get better soon, we’re leaving. Even if I have to hogtie Keith. He’s getting in that car, and we’re all getting the fuck out of here.
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.