June 15, 8:23 pm
When the darkness cleared and Justin was gone, Richard lay inside Pil, slowly realizing that he had limbs once again. He could feel his arms and his legs, but they felt… different. Strange, somehow. Larger. He took a deep breath and smelled real air, but tinged with acrid smoke. He spread his fingers wide, and felt them against something hard like wood, and then soft like cloth. After so many days of feeling nothing but hard concrete in the world, the softness of the cloth was silken and almost erotic.
He felt someone take his hand. It was a hand that seemed impossibly small to him in that moment, and also impossibly soft and fragile. He heard a voice say, “Pil, honey… It’s Michelle! Can you hear me? Open your eyes. You’re okay. Everything is okay.”
That’s Michelle’s voice. Keith’s friend, Michelle. What is she doing here? And where is here?
He opened his eyes and saw immediately that Michelle was kneeling before him. He recognized her, but it didn’t seem to matter in that moment. All that mattered was that he was wearing this new body like a glove. No, that wasn’t quite right. He was this new body, the same way he was his old body, even though the contours of it—the strength, the size—were all new. And sensations were flowing through his new body that he had almost forgotten.
The woman was on him now, weeping, kissing his lips, his hands, and burying her face against his chest. But even that did not fully register. He picked up his hands to look at them, and she pulled away. Her soft cries went silent as he looked at his hands. They were huge, brown and smooth, with fingers that were too thick to be useful. But he opened and closed them in wonder, marveling at the strength in them. So unlike the hands he once had, in some fading dream.
He felt Michelle’s hands on his chin, turning his head. And then he was looking into her eyes. The look of joy on her face melted away as she realized she was not looking at her husband, after all.
“It’s Richard,” a voice said behind him. His muddled mind was quickly becoming clear. That boy’s name is Howard. Howard Gunderson. The man who shot me, back when Justin had control of his body.
The way I’m controlling Pil now, he realized.
He watched numbly as Howard pulled Michelle away. And with a rush, the reality of what had just happened crashed in on him.
I did it! The Fourth Gift! I have a body again! I’m back in the world of the living!
He gathered his shirt and smelled it. There was a tang of sweat in the fabric, but one that was different from any he had ever known, even when he was alive. This was the sweat of a different body, the subtle difference of soap and sweat and male musk filling his nostrils. He felt an aching desire rising in him, the way it had every time he had smelled a man’s sweat over the years. He looked up and saw the colors of the evening sky the way he remembered them. The air on his skin felt like silk, and his body responded with a longing that was so strong it made him tremble.
Howard was kneeling before him now, and Richard parted his lips, feeling the thick tongue moving inside his mouth, forming a word.
“Justin?” he asked.
“He’s gone, Richard. I saw him leave Pil, and he smashed into the wall so hard that he… He disappeared.”
Reset, Richard thought, with a flash of disappointment that quickly passed.
“Richard, I know you can’t see him, but Billy is here. He’s been begging you to leave Pil. He is right there in front of you.”
Instinctively, Richard glanced at the spot of open air that Howard had indicated. But of course, he could see nothing there. He was in the world of the living again, and if Billy was there, why should he care? What use to him now were all the worries of the dead? He was no longer of that world. He was among the living now. He was reborn!
“I don’t understand,” Michelle said, drawing Richard’s attention back to her. “Where is my husband?”
But before he could think of how to answer her, or even what the question fully implied, a figure rose from behind her. His view of Keith had been blocked by the bodies of Howard and Michelle. But now, not only was his lover rising to his feet, but he heard his name on his lips.
“Richard?” Keith said, his eyes wide and his stance unsteady. He took a step, and Richard was worried that he would tumble back to the hard porch. All Richard’s need and longing focused in his chest like a hook buried in his heart. Tears rushed into his eyes, and Keith’s face became misty, as if he was standing in the rain.
Oh my god, it’s Keith, he thought. Oh, Keith, my love…
And with that realization, all the memories came flooding back to him. All the loss, and all the longing. All the regret, and all the despair. It all came flooding back, and then passed out of him in a wave, as he realized that not only was his love now standing before him, but that he was finally back in a body that could touch him. He could tell Keith he loved him once again. He could once again kiss him and tell him how sorry he was for abandoning him. They could hold each other. And all that followed.
“Baby Bear…” he said, his voice sounding nothing like he remembered. “Oh, Baby Bear…” He lifted his arms and reached for his lover, his fingers trembling.
Their gazes locked together, it amazed Richard to see that there was no doubt on Keith’s face. No fear. Only a wonder and a joy that he wanted to embrace, but was too wildly fantastic to be true. Keith looked into Richard’s eyes as if he was a gift he thought he either did not deserve, or knew that he could never keep.
Richard started to shake, and he leaned forward in the chair. “It’s me,” he said. “I’m back. I’m here. Oh god, Baby Bear, I’m really here!” He took in a deep breath and opened his huge arms wide, as if he wanted to gather in the world, and then let out that breath with a sob. Keith took another step toward him, and was raising his own arms now.
“Billy, stop,” Howard said, softly. “You know they can’t hear you.”
Howard’s words didn’t even register to Richard. As Keith rushed to him, there was a sound on his lips somewhere between a whimper and a laugh. He fell to his knees next to Richard, who slid out of his chair to kneel there with him. Keith brought up a hand and touched Pil’s face, now Richard’s face, and the softness of that hand, the joy it brought to his heart, made Richard whimper as well. He was touching Keith’s face now, and then the huge hands wrapped around the smaller man’s shoulders. He pulled Keith to his chest with an embrace that was so tight that it made them both gasp. Richard eased back, not wanting to hurt Keith, knowing that the arms he had now were many times more powerful than those he had in his previous life.
This will take some getting used to, he thought. But I’ll have an entire lifetime. An entire lifetime with Keith… Oh, god, he is so beautiful! He’s everything I remembered. Everything I thought I’d lost forever. Why couldn’t I appreciate how much of a miracle he is? Why did I have to die to see it?
“I’m back,” he said, over and over again, looking so intently into his lover’s face that it made them both tremble. “I’m here. Oh god, Cubby, I’m really here!” The reality of it was now flooding through them both, like the dawn that came after a million years of darkness. He was actually alive! He was no longer a ghost! He was human, with all the joys and heartache that entailed. He wanted to stretch his arms wide, and grab everything that surrounded him, and pull it into himself. Every inch of the sky, every blade of grass. Every miraculous bit of it. Keith, the house, his friends, and even the planet itself! The beauty of it all dwarfed his soul, and he felt himself begin to sob.
This is redemption, he thought. This is grace. This is meaning…
At first Keith was numb, and like a rag doll in Richard’s arms. But then he erupted with a wail of his own. It was a cry of recognition, a terror-filled hope that robbed him of every word. He wrapped his arms around Pil’s thick body, and then every ounce of strength left him, and all he could do was wail in Richard’s new, heavy arms.
Over Keith’s head, Richard saw Michelle and Howard. Michelle was squeezing Howard’s hand so hard he thought the man might cry out. But he didn’t dare look into Michelle’s face, afraid of what he might find there. Instead, he just let his heart burst open and closed his eyes so he could feel his arms around the man he loved. He sensed something inside himself being broken and mended, over and over again.
It may have been seconds or even minutes. But slowly, Richard realized that his lover had gone silent. Keith gently pushed him away and looked into his eyes. Pil’s eyes. Richard was trembling. He was with Keith again, and nothing else in the world mattered, and yet there was also a growing fear in his heart. A realization that what he was experiencing might be too good to be true.
No, I have to stay! How could I ever have dreamed that I could do this and not stay? he wondered. I have my life back. I have back everything that I lost!
He held Keith’s face in his hands, their lips just inches apart, their eyes locked together. He heard Howard’s voice, now just inches from his ear. The voice spoke, gently.
“Richard, Billy is begging you. I’m begging you. Please. Don’t do this. Billy says to remember what Tuilla said. Don’t take away our hope.”
Richard realized that Howard had put a hand on one of his shoulders, and then he felt another hand. A smaller, trembling hand. Michelle was there, and she had a palm on Richard’s chest. She just said, gently, “Richard. No. You can’t. Please. I’m begging you. For Pil… You… You have no right… You know you have no right.”
Richard felt it in his hands, even before he could see it. A slight trembling in his lover’s body. A tension. A tightness. A fear. Keith had his face down now, and he was shaking his head, slowly, from side to side. When finally he once again looked up, his face was wet. The look in his eyes was no longer one of joy. It was one of desperation, of sadness, of wounds reopened, and losses relived.
Quietly, but insistently, Keith said, “No, Richard… It’s not right.”
Richard finally broke his gaze from Keith and looked around him. He saw the pleading on Michelle’s face, and the terror on Howard’s. He looked back into Keith’s eyes, where that sudden flash of joy had been replaced by despair, and he felt as if the big man’s heart, his heart, was about to stutter into silence.
“Poppa Bear… You can’t. You just can’t…” Keith whispered.
Richard tried to speak, but his voice was lost, somewhere deep inside his throat. All that came out was a whimper that sounded to him like a small animal was dying.
Tuilla said it, he remembered. She told me that to possess was to destroy. And that there was no way to possess without violating those we love. God damn her! God damn her to hell! God damn them all!
He tried to wallow in his anger, but he felt too weak, as if there was nothing left of him that was not too broken that could sustain it. He was with Keith, but the city was continuing to sink into chaos. His being here would not save Keith. And it would not save this city.
He briefly considered fleeing with him, but could he leave this city while possessing Pil? Or would he be pulled out of Pil at the edge of the Hereafter? He sensed that if he stayed in this body long enough to get Keith to safety, what would be pulled from Pil would be a twisted, mad, pathetic thing.
Keith put a hand on Richard’s cheek. “Poppa Bear, it’s okay. You have to go. I know it hurts. It hurts me too. But Pil is not ours to take…”
At the sound of the big man’s name, Richard could suddenly feel him. Somewhere deep inside, Pil was still there. He was a presence full of fear and panic, like a swimmer too far underwater, trying to reach the surface. Terrified. Filled with desperation. Richard felt him struggling. The man that had always been more powerful than anyone Richard had known was being crushed by the weight of Richard’s possession.
Richard touched Keith’s face tenderly, and wiped away a tear from each eye, the way he used to do after a sad movie. Summoning every bit of strength he had, and trying desperately to control his shaking voice, he spoke to his lover for what he knew would be one last time.
“You’ll be okay, Baby Bear. But I have to go. I have to go. I love you.”
And then he kissed him.
It was neither light, nor brief, and in that moment, every kiss he had ever shared with this man flashed through his mind, and his soul felt as if it was so brilliant that it could ignite the very air they shared. Keith’s whole heart and soul was in that kiss—every moment they had shared, and every dream they had longed for together. Everything they had achieved, and all the things they had hoped for, and all the things they had lost.
The whole world, and both of their souls, passed between them.
And in that moment, Richard’s certainty almost wavered.
Almost, but not quite.
When the kiss finally parted, Keith stared at his husband, struggling to find words. And when he did, his voice cracked so hard Richard thought it was the sound of his own heart breaking.
“Just know I’ll love you forever…” Keith said. His voice was shattered, but no more tears came. Slowly, he stood up and took a step back. Richard’s hands fell away from him, back to his sides, and he remained kneeling between the three, the center point about which this triangle was balanced.
He looked at Michelle and Howard, flanking him on either side, one hand still on each of his shoulders. Then he turned and grabbed Michelle’s hand, maybe too roughly.
“Get Keith out of here. You all need to leave! You and Pil have to get Keith as far away from Salt Lake City as you can. Las Vegas or Denver or Reno. It doesn’t matter. Just get out, and get out now. Promise me!”
“I promise,” Michelle managed to say.
He released her hand. “I’m so sorry. Tell Pil… I’m so sorry.” He dropped his head and looked at Keith one last time.
“I love you, Baby Bear,” he said.
“Forever, Poppa Bear,” Keith replied, sinking back to his knees.
There was a pause no longer than two heartbeats. And then, with a deep sigh, every muscle in Pil’s body released. He dropped heavily to the porch, curled on his side, and sobbing like an infant.
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.