Chapter 2.73: Souls in a Lifeboat
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, 8:00 pm
Howard awoke with the tire iron still in his clenched fist, and rolled over onto the crackling wrappers from a dozen granola bars.
He wasn’t sure if he awoke because heard something outside, or because of the suddenly pervasive smell of bitter smoke that was creeping into the damp stone room. But whatever caused it, he awoke to a feeling of panic and dread that went far beyond his own dire circumstances. He felt instantly like the world was collapsing around him, and with a gasp his hands shot out, clawing at the stones in the darkness.
His heart raced like a jackhammer in his chest for a few minutes, and he had to fight to suppress the adrenalin that coursed through him. He’d never experienced a panic attack, but he’d known people that had, and what he felt in those first dark moments, waking up in the tomb, felt exactly like what they had described. If the whole crypt had imploded and crushed the life out of him, it wouldn’t have surprised him in the least.
He’d huddled in the dank tomb for more than a day—sleeping most of the time in the narrow space between the concrete sarcophagus and the wall. It had been uncomfortably warm during the day, so he’d taken to sleeping in his underwear, using both his prison issues and the new clothes from Keith Woo as makeshift bedding. But despite being nearly naked on the concrete floor, he was still covered in sweat.
As his panic slowly subsided, he sensed that the world outside was no longer the world he had fled the night before. First, of course, was the smell, which burned his nose and made his eyes water. But the next thing he noticed was the silence.
The tomb was just off Q Street, and by all rights, he should have been able to hear cars passing. But the silence was so pervasive that even the wind seemed stilled. Climbing to his feet and looking out the latticework door of the crypt, he saw what looked like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic video game. The houses across from the cemetery looked silent and empty. No lights were on in any of them, as far as he could see, and tendrils of gray smoke snaked across their doorways and through their trees as if they were the fingers of a hungry predator.
Instantly, he knew that if he was still in danger, it was not from the police. What he had heard Billy and Richard talking about had come to pass—or perhaps was still in the process of coming to pass—and the Salt Lake Valley now had far more dire things to worry about than an escaped prisoner.
He dressed in Richard Pratt’s baggy clothes. Then, slowly, he eased the door open. The creaking of its hinges cut through the air like the shriek of a bat. He hadn’t taken two steps before he realized he had forgotten something important—something he hadn’t taken with him the last time, but knew this time he could very well need.
He returned to the crypt for the tire iron. And feeling it in his hand again calmed his nerves.
He considered heading south into the Avenues, but then thought better of it. Perhaps he shouldn’t walk openly through the streets just yet. The sun would be down soon, and he thought it would be wise for him to slip further into the cemetery, where he could get a better sense of what was happening, and perhaps decide what to do.
As he crested the rise behind the tomb and looked deep into the now shadowy expanse of the twilit cemetery, he saw something that filled him with such wonder that he fell to his knees.
The cemetery was full of ghosts.
Howard had realized, shortly after seeing Richard and Billy, that there had to be more ghosts than just those two and Justin. And then when he had seen the little girl and the pilot, he knew he must be barely seeing the tip of the iceberg. But it was far different to know that intellectually, than it was to actually see it in front of his face.
There had to be thousands of ghosts in the cemetery.
It looks like a Grateful Dead concert, he thought, and then laughed aloud at his own joke.
The ghosts milled about the graves, mostly just walking aimlessly, although many were using the cold headstones as benches, and a few lay on the graves as if they were their own (which perhaps they were). The vast majority were old, and many were either naked or in hospital gowns, which was very different from the ghosts he had seen up to this point. But none of them seemed threatening. The feeling that emanated from them was one of sadness, despair, and fear—as if they too were fleeing the coming apocalypse that Billy and Richard feared.
Slowly, Howard walked among the dead.
He had the inescapable feeling that they had all run here from something, believing instinctively that the cemetery represented safety. He understood that feeling, since it was the same one that had driven him here. But the bond that these ghosts had with this city of the dead seemed more profound, more personal, than anything that Howard could ever dream of experiencing. As he looked into their faces, he saw that every one of them seemed agitated and frantic. They watched him pass among them, and when he would catch their eyes they were startled, as if they had never before seen a living person who actually looked into their eyes. This caused some of them to cower back in fear, but several walked up to Howard and reached out to touch him, as if he held some secret to their existence.
He wanted to talk to them, but so many of them seemed insane. And even the ones that looked on him with clear eyes had faces tense with terror. Each time he thought he would speak to one, or one would speak to him, the two of them would look into each other’s eyes, and realize that there was nothing that the living and the dead had to say to each other. The hunger to speak he saw in their eyes must have been the same hunger they saw in his. But in the end, they all turned away.
What are they fleeing by coming here? he asked himself. Are they fleeing the thing that Richard and Billy feared?
There were many around him now, and their fingers reached out to stroke his arm, his chest, and even the tire iron he gripped in his right hand. He could not feel their touch. They might as well have been made of the same smoke that curled around and through them. But he could see those hands as they stroked him longingly, and the sight made him walk faster. Looking back, he saw more and more of the dead falling into step behind him. They were not chasing him, but they appeared to think that he was either their leader, or could offer them some hope of salvation. Or perhaps they thought he could simply assuage their desperation and despair.
Turning away from the ghosts, Howard made his way southwest, until he came to the corner of the cemetery. Looking back, he saw that a group of perhaps three hundred or more of the ghosts had followed him, but they all stopped far short of the cemetery’s edge. They stood and looked at him with pleading eyes, as if they hoped he would turn around and come back to them. But they didn’t speak, and when he failed to return, they sadly turned away from him, and walked back into the cemetery. He watched their sad and sloped shoulders, their naked backs, their withered and spindly legs, as they disappeared into the growing mist.
A shiver ran up his spine as a thought occurred to him.
Every cemetery in the city must be filled with the dead, just like this one. They’ve fled from… something. He stared until the last of them disappeared in the mist and gloom. These are souls in a lifeboat, he thought, watching the sharks swim circles in the water.
With a sense of dread, Howard Gunderson left the graveyard.
A gray pallor hung over the Avenues and no longer was the silence of the cemetery a refuge. A half dozen darting helicopters were visible in the deepening gloom, their lights blinking like buzzing UFOs over the city. The sirens of police and fire trucks pierced the air, but all of them were far away. As he gazed out toward the city, he could hear the distant crack of gunshots, and even the screams of the terrified, the wounded, and the dying.
A cop car raced by him, and to his surprise, he didn’t even try to hide. He caught the eye of one officer as he sped by, shouting into his hand-held microphone. The cop saw him, but didn’t slow, or appear to recognize him. The car turned a corner with tires screeching, and was gone, the crying of their siren dissipating in the evening air.
I don’t think I need to worry about the cops looking for me anymore, he realized.
Walking down 4th Avenue, he felt unsure what he should do next. Clearly, he needed to get out of the city, but something was also drawing him to the west, so he trusted that instinct and continued.
As he passed by the houses, he saw he was not the first person in the city to conclude that they needed to leave. He passed several houses that were clearly empty, with no cars in front. In some, the lights were still on, and the doors hung open. Clothes and other belongings lay scattered on the lawns where they had been dropped. He considered exploring some of the houses, but decided against it.
The gloom was thick now, but there was still enough light left to see what horrors had been visited on this city, in the hours in which he had slept the sleep of the dead in his tomb. He saw his first body within a block of the cemetery, wedged tightly under a car, which had plowed into a tree. He could only see the feet sticking out, like the Wicked Witch of the East, trapped under Dorothy’s house. As he passed he could see the feet were both still wearing fashionable high-heeled shoes, and the blood splattered calves were once shapely and lovely. The gorge threatened to rise in his throat, so he turned away and kept walking.
He passed one house with a dog tied to a tree, shivering miserably despite the warm evening air. Near the end of the dog’s chain was a body that looked as if it had been hacked to death. The fury that had been visited on the body seemed insane and excessive, and there was little about the bloody mass of flesh and clothing that still seemed even remotely human. The quivering dog looked from the body to Howard, over and over, as if he could somehow bring his master or mistress back to life. Or perhaps as if he could erase from his dog mind the horrors he had witnessed, and been unable to prevent, at the end of his chain.
Not sure why he was doing it, Howard unfastened the dog’s collar, and the beast instantly bolted to the body on the ground, circling it and whimpering miserably. Finally, he looked up at Howard with eyes that would haunt him until the day he died, and then ran to the east as if he was being chased by all the demons from hell.
A woman two houses down sat on her porch, cradling the body (alive or dead, he could not tell) of what looked to be a kindergarten-age girl. The woman’s eyes were wide and full of terror, but still she sat on the porch numbly, as if she was waiting for help to arrive. Howard wanted to approach her, but the bloody knife she had laid in her lap looked deadly, and so he just continued down the deserted street.
Another block further on, he came upon a couple with their three daughters packing their car, preparing to flee the city. Gathering his courage, he walked up to the family. As soon as he emerged from the shadows, the father pulled a shotgun out of the back seat and pointed it at the stranger’s chest. Howard immediately threw his hands into the air, dropping the tire iron to the street with a rough, metallic clang.
“Whoa, I’m not armed! I just want to ask you what’s happening!”
The father spit, and it was only then that Howard saw the NRA bumper sticker on the car. Fuck, he thought. This was a bad idea.
“You just stay back. You won’t be the first son of a bitch I’ve shot today,” the father said. And indeed, Howard could see the body of another man lying face down in the grass, half-hidden by a low hedge.
“It’s okay, sir. I’m walking away. Please don’t shoot. I’m going…” With his hands still in the air, he backed away.
“Wait a minute,” the wife called, coming around the back of their car. “You really don’t know what’s happening?”
“No,” Howard said, pausing his retreat. “I just… I just woke up.” Well, at least that was the truth.
The wife put her hand on her husband’s forearm, and he lowered the weapon. The two glanced at each other, and the three girls huddled in the backseat peered out the back window, their terror illuminated by the fading glow of the sky.
The mother took a small step forward. “We don’t know what’s happening. Nobody knows.”
“Toxic gas. That’s what I think,” said the father. “Probably some leak out at the Tooele Army Depot or something. It must have drifted into the city, and it’s making people crazy. Homicidal. You don’t know who you can trust. People are being killed all over the city. Probably thousands.”
“If it’s gas, why isn’t it affecting everybody?” Howard asked.
“It’s not gas,” the wife said with a sneer. “Jim doesn’t want to accept it. This is a terrorist attack. The Muslims must have hundreds of sleeper cells in this city, and they’ve all been activated. This is terrorism!”
Her husband rolled his eyes. “I think she’s been watching too much 24,” he said distractedly. But his gun was down now, and he was using his free hand to stuff what looked like a tent into the trunk of the car.
“We’re getting the hell out of here,” the woman said. “We should have gone earlier. You should get out too.”
He pondered for a moment telling the family the truth. But he could just hear himself saying, “It’s not gas, and it’s not terrorists. It’s ghosts!” That sounded absurd even to him, and he couldn’t think of a quicker way to end up shot next to the crumpled body behind the hedge. So he just nodded his head and wished the family good luck. He picked up the tire iron from the pavement and hurried on.
He was nearly there before he even realized where his feet were taking him.
He was at the intersection now of 4th Avenue and J Street. Richard Pratt’s house was just two blocks south, on the right. He couldn’t help but wonder if Keith Woo and his two friends had fled the city the way he had begged them to. He had fulfilled his duty to Richard Pratt by delivering that message. And yet, he now felt a desperate need to know that they were okay. Maybe he could swing by there quickly and then head north, out of the city.
Taking a deep breath, he turned down J Street.
When he drew near, he was surprised to see that the street had suffered less damage than any he had passed through on the way. And yet, the same pallor, and the same sense of dread, hung over these silent houses as it did over the rest of the Avenues.
When he arrived at Richard’s house, he saw that the garage door was down and every curtain had been pulled closed.
That’s hopeful, he thought.
He rushed around back, perhaps because that was where he had encountered Michelle and Keith before. But when he got there, he saw that here too the drapes were pulled across the tall glass doors. The only light he could see was coming from a small window on the far right that might look in upon the kitchen. The blinds here were still open, so he quietly crept up onto the porch. He put the tire iron down at his feet and used his hands to pull his face up to the window.
To his disappointment, he saw Michelle, the woman he had met earlier, at the dining room table. She was visible through the archway between the small kitchen and the dining room, and she was frantically dialing a cell phone.
Damn, they’re still here!
He thought of tapping on the window, but before he could, she manifested some strange psychic sense, and looked up. For just an instant, she saw his face peering in at her. He dropped below the window, mostly out of instinct, and when he looked up again, she was there, looking down at him through the glass.
Taking a deep breath, he signaled for her to come out. She drew back, but then he put his hands together in a prayerful, pleading gesture. He looked right into her eyes, expecting her to draw the curtain, and maybe even call her big, hostile husband. But then she was gone.
He grabbed the tire iron and retreated to the far corner of the house, preparing to run if necessary. And the sliding door onto the back porch opened.
Michelle Kilani stepped out, and with surprising confidence, she walked over to where Howard was cowering at the corner of the house.
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.