June 16, 10:47 am
Something about being in his own home again helped Richard shake off the fear that had been gnawing at his guts. Everything here looked so normal, as if he and Keith were just coming back home after a vacation. That is, if he could ignore the boarded up front window. And the tree of his own blood and brains that still decorated one wall of the living room, like some ghastly Jackson Pollock painting that only he could see.
He wasn’t the only one relieved to be back. Now that they were inside, Pil was more alert and aware, and his hands had stopped shaking. The big man appeared to have grudgingly accepted the reality that Richard was there, but he refused to speak to him directly. He had taken to passing all his questions and responses through Howard, as though the young man was some kind of ghost whisperer.
In contrast, Keith was absolutely sure that Richard was there with him, and would stare into a space where he sensed Richard might be standing. And although he was frequently wrong, when his eyes did focus on the right spot, the illusion of looking into his lover’s eyes filled Richard with such gratitude that he almost forgot the gravity of their situation. Keith kept putting his hand out into space, palm up, for Richard to take. And although Richard wasn’t certain that his partner really could sense him, the illusion was one that he wanted to revel in for as long as it lasted.
But he had little time to linger in those emotional indulgences. Once the door was securely locked, everyone sprang into action, knowing that the most critical issue at that moment was Keith’s burns. Fortunately, the first aid kit was still where they had left it. Inside was a hefty tube of antiseptic gel, several sterile surgical pads, and two roles of gauze. Howard found a couple of old ace bandages in the bathroom upstairs, and between them, Pil and Howard did a credible job of dressing Keith’s burns. Richard couldn’t help but think Michelle would have done the job much better, but for a couple of clumsy guys, they did okay. Pil used the entire tube of gel, and then Howard wrapped Keith’s left arm with the pads and the gauze, from his fortunately undamaged hand to his bicep. Once it was cleaned, Keith’s right arm looked better, with only a single patch of serious damage on his forearm. After the wounds were tightly dressed with the gauze, they wrapped each arm with the ace bandages to keep everything secure.
Richard watched all this, helpless and grief-stricken. But he also felt a growing fury at those who had done this to the man he loved. Howard could see that he was stewing, and once Keith was settled more comfortably on the couch, he turned to Richard.
“Come on, Richard,” he said, gesturing to the staircase. “Help me find a new shirt for Keith. And one for me.”
Richard was confused for a moment, but then he realized that Howard, too, was shirtless. Both of the men had somehow lost their shirts in the fire, probably because they had been burning. Richard half-smiled, thinking this might have been the first time in his adult life that he’d failed to notice a handsome young man without his shirt. But yes, Howard was right. They both needed something to wear. Keith was never comfortable being shirtless among strangers, and despite the pain he was in, Richard could recognize the peculiar way he hunched his shoulders when he was feeling shy about his body. No matter how many times Richard had told him how beautiful he was, Keith had never gotten over that internalized shame over his weight.
Richard made his way upstairs, with Howard following at his heels. He passed through the closed bedroom door without a thought, and then remembered that Howard could not walk through doors the way he did. But by the time he had turned, Howard had opened the door and joined him in the bedroom.
In the walk-in closet, he felt like an invalid, pointing to shirts as Howard pawed through them, pushing each one to the side. In the end, they picked out one of Richard’s lighter summer shirts that Howard could wear, although it looked rather ridiculous and baggy on him. Finding a shirt for Keith took a bit more thought, fearing that the feel of any long sleeves on his arms would be intolerable, despite the bandages. Unfortunately, the only short sleeve shirts Keith owned were t-shirts, which might be difficult to pull over his head. Finally, they found an old Hawaiian shirt they had bought when they had gone to the islands with Pil and Michelle some years ago. It seemed somehow a sacrilege to be wearing something this bright and colorful, when everything around them was steeped in such death and destruction. But it was the best they could do.
Back downstairs, as Howard and Pil were helping Keith into the shirt, Billy spoke up for the first time since they had entered the house. Richard had almost forgotten the boy was there.
“Do you think they should give him something for the pain?” Billy asked.
Howard glanced at the boy, and then at the burned man on the couch.
“Keith,” Howard said, “Billy is asking if we should give you something for the pain. What do you think?”
Keith collapsed heavily on the couch in his fresh shirt. The very act of getting his arms through those shirt sleeves had been an ordeal for him and had worn him out.
“I don’t know,” Keith said. “Are we going to stay here? Or are we going to leave?”
That was an excellent question, and Howard looked at Pil, and then at Richard and Billy, for an answer.
“I think we’re going to leave,” Pil finally said, looking at Howard to see if the two unseen ghosts in the room would have any objection. When neither Richard nor Billy replied, Howard just nodded his head.
“Then maybe I shouldn’t take anything,” Keith said. “I don’t want anything that’s going to make me dopey.”
“I can tell you’re in a lot of pain, K,” Pil said, stroking the back of the man’s dark hair. “I’d rather have you get some relief, rather than worry about being dopey.” He paused, and then looked around the room as if he was trying to locate Richard. “Besides, I’ll take care of you.”
Richard’s heart jumped at that, but he knew Pil was absolutely right. Taking care of Keith was now Pil’s responsibility, along with Howard. Of everyone in that room, Richard knew, he was now the one that was least able to take care of the man he loved. Being reminded of that stung.
“There’s an old bottle of OxyContin in the upstairs bathroom,” Keith said. “It’s from when Richard had his carpal tunnel surgery a few years ago. I imagine it’s still good.”
Howard sat back in the big chair. “Oxy. That’s pretty potent stuff.”
“How about if we only give you a half tablet to start. If you need more, we can increase it,” Pil suggested.
Keith nodded, and Howard went upstairs to get the bottle.
Ten minutes later, as the Oxy took effect, Keith closed his eyes and slept, his head on Pil’s lap, the big man silently stroking his hair. Richard sat at their feet and ached as he watched them. Keith had taken Pil’s hand and was clutching it against his chest. Richard had his hand over both of them, and his head next to Keith’s, on Pil’s lap—the three of them communing in some mystical bond.
Richard had always loved nothing more than being with Keith while he slept. There was such an innocence in his lover, and when he was asleep, he seemed almost angelic. He couldn’t count the number of nights he had laid awake, especially early in their relationship, as Keith slept in his arms. There had been nights when he hardly slept at all, not wanting to lose a single moment of that delicious and blissful feeling that crept over him. Those magic moments of holding Keith’s naked body, feeling his lover’s warmth and the slow and regular rise and fall of his breath, had been when Richard felt the most at peace.
He was surprised that even in this awkward pose, with him on the floor, and the two men on the couch above him, he felt that same warmth. But now it was not just for Keith. Richard was also feeling a great tenderness for Pil. It was a bittersweet feeling, arising both from his gratitude to Pil, but also from the knowledge that, at least in this moment, the big man was stepping in to replace him as Keith’s protector.
It was some time later that Richard became aware that Howard and Billy had left the room. He could hear them talking in the dining room, and they were whispering low. Perhaps it was because they didn’t want Howard to wake Keith, but there was something in their tone that worried Richard, and he resented that the reality they represented was intruding on the blissful world he had found there on the couch with these two men.
Finally, Billy came back into the room, and silently, he motioned to Richard to join them in the dining room. Only with great reluctance did Richard get to his feet and follow the boy.
“Richard, we’ve been talking,” Billy began, “and I’ve been trying to get Howard up to speed on what has happened. He wanted me to tell him about your last contact with Drouillard. I thought it best you explain it.”
Richard shrugged, annoyed. This is why they took me away from Keith and Pil? To talk about fucking Drouillard?
“What do you want to know?” he asked, a sharp edge in his voice.
“Billy told me you were in contact with him,” Howard said. “That you made him think you were broken, and that somehow you got into his mind. And that you might know where he is now.”
“No, I have no idea.” He looked at Billy sharply. “I told you, I just saw an empty ravine, and so I know he’s in the desert, but I don’t know where that is.”
“But you also told me you had a vision of him as well. A symbolic representation of him, that you saw when you drew back your consciousness, and pictured the Hereafter as a whole.”
“Yeah, the octopus,” Richard said.
“And I told you we needed a map. But that we needed one on the wall, like a poster.”
“That’s right.” Richard had actually forgotten that was why they had gone to the gas station.
“Well, we don’t need a poster any more. We have Howard! He can unfold a map, if you have one here. You said you thought you might.”
Richard paused for a moment. Yes, they had maps. After they came back from their road trips, they often kept the folding paper maps and brochures that they’d picked up along the way. He would have been happy to just use the map app on his phone, but Keith always preferred handling paper. He liked to trace their routes with a yellow highlighter, as a kind of souvenir of their trips.
“They’re in the bookcase in my office. On the bottom shelf there’s an old banker’s box where I throw stuff like that.” Richard didn’t need to be prompted. He led them into his office, which was on the ground floor, just off the dining room. It didn’t take more than a couple minutes for Howard to paw through the box and find the map that Richard was talking about. It was a big, fold-out AAA map of the state of Utah.
“Grab that Sharpie marker off the desk too,” Billy said, as they left the office.
Back in the dining room, Howard unfolded the map while the two ghosts looked on. The great state of Utah was laid out before them, and the faded yellow line of an old road trip showed where Richard and Keith had traveled, down through southern Utah, Bryce, Zion, and then on to the Grand Canyon. Just looking at that old route made him remember the trip. It had been early in their relationship, and it had been one of their best.
He was still lost in his reminiscences when he realized that Billy was directing Howard to use the Sharpie to mark specific locations all across the map. He knew instantly that they were spots that Billy had identified as being on the edges of the Hereafter: Wendover in the West. Fillmore, Salina and Manti in the South. Emigration Canyon to their East. A spot just south of Ogden, near a little town called Lucin. Even a spot called Swasey Peak, deep in the desert at the southern reaches of the Salt Flats.
“Okay,” Billy said. “Now use the marker to connect all those dots.”
When Howard was done, Richard looked at the map in wonder. The young man had drawn a huge oval, connecting each of the dots. It was a map of the Hereafter, and he had never realized how huge it truly was. It covered half of the state.
“Okay, Howard. Now, hold up the map.”
Like an easel, Howard took the top corners of the map in his hands, and held it in front of him. Billy took Richard’s elbow so that he could step back and look at it.
“Okay, Richard. What do you see?”
Richard was amazed. “Yes, that’s the shape! That’s the tipped oval, like I saw in my mind. When I visualize it, though, it’s golden. But that’s exactly the right shape.”
“Can you picture the octopus?”
Richard squinted and tipped his head, trying to let the visualization come over him. To his relief, it flowed easily, as if he could take the mental image he had of the Hereafter and lay it over the map like a transparent sheet of mylar.
“Yeah, I can see it. The shape of the octopus perfectly covers the oval. The head and the body are there in the center, and the arms, the tentacles, stretch out. There are hundreds of them, reaching everything in the Hereafter.”
“Do they go in every direction?”
“Yes… No, wait. They mostly go East. Are you suggesting that the center of the octopus is where I saw Drouillard?”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that he is somehow connected with the Hereafter. Like it all radiates from him.
“Or from that place,” Howard added.
Richard thought about it for a moment. “So, you think Drouillard is the center? That the Hereafter radiates out from him? But that doesn’t make sense. Then it would move with him, and you’ve said the boundary is perfectly stable.”
“Maybe it doesn’t radiate from him,” Howard suggested. “Maybe it radiates from a place. Like a radio signal tower that only broadcasts so far…”
Howard laid the map back on the table, and using the Sharpie, he drew a rough X. One stroke down the oval’s length northwest to southeast, and then one across the width. He put down the pen and stood back. The effect was like an elongated view through a gunsight.
Slowly, all three leaned over the table to look at where the lines crossed.
Billy put his finger in the center of the map. “Right about here. Out in the desert, just past Tooele. It looks like somewhere near Dugway.”
Richard straightened up. “Dugway? Do you know what’s there?”
“Isn’t it a military base?” Howard asked.
Richard leaned over the table, his eyes locked on the little dot with the word “Dugway” printed next to it. “It’s a lot more than just a military base, I’m afraid. It’s a super secure complex where the military researches and develops every weapon of mass destruction you can dream of. They have weapons there we can’t even imagine. Nobody knows, exactly. It’s ultra-secret. Chemical and biological warfare agents, I’m sure. Nuclear weapons even. Maybe. But like I said, nobody really knows.”
Billy let out a huge sigh and sank down into a chair next to the table. “I think that’s where he’ll be then,” he said. “You told me he was wearing a military uniform when you saw him. Whoever he is controlling, they must be military. That makes sense. The Wanderer wants revenge. And to do that, he needs power. Taking over a military man would be logical. And it’s probably not a coincidence that he’s on a military base with hugely destructive weapons.”
The three of them looked at each other.
“That’s terrifying,” Howard said.
Billy sighed. “Richard, what if this is just the beginning? I mean, what if he has more planned than what’s already happened? What if this is just the tip of the iceberg?”
Richard suddenly felt trapped, like there was some strange doubt or fear in his gut that he couldn’t quite get his mind around.
“But we don’t know for sure he’s there,” he finally said. “Yeah, this is the extent of the Hereafter, and Dugway is at the center. But how do we know Drouillard is actually there? We know he moves around. Tuilla and I saw him at Temple Square. For all we know, he could still be in the city…”
“You said you saw him in the desert,” Billy said, quietly.
“Yeah, but that was hours ago. If we go to Dugway and he’s already left, then we’ll have wasted our time. Time we don’t have. Before we do that, we should know. We should be certain.”
Billy looked torn, but finally he sighed and agreed.
“You’re right. It could take us hours to get there, and if we’re wrong, hours to get back. And I don’t know how many hours this city has left.” He paused. “Maybe we can confirm it by contacting him again. Have you sensed him since we’ve been here?”
Richard groaned, remembering how traumatic their last encounter had been. “No. I haven’t sensed him since he broke off contact. I’ve tried, but I’ve gotten nothing but silence. And he’s definitely no longer trying to contact me either. I think he may have decided I’m not worth the trouble.”
“Or he’s afraid of you,” Howard added, and they both looked at him.
Billy stood up next to the table. “Then we still need Justin,” he said. “If he’s still talking to his God, then maybe he’s the only one that can tell us where he is.”
“Justin’s probably long gone,” Richard said. “Finding him isn’t going to be any easier than finding Drouillard.”
Howard sighed and put up his hand. “Actually, I think he’s still here.”
Richard and Billy looked at him, shocked. “Can you sense him?” Billy asked, excitedly. “Is that part of being a medium?”
“No,” Howard said. “It’s nothing like that. I can only see and hear the ghosts. I can’t sense them. Not like you sense Mattie. No, I just know the old-fashioned way.” He paused and clearly saw the confusion in the two men’s faces. “I mean, I saw the look in Justin’s eyes. I felt the way he looked at me, out there in the street. I think… I think he’s always going to be close to me now, waiting for his chance.”
“That’s nuts, Howard,” Richard said. “It’s me he wants. Me and Keith.”
“Not anymore, Richard. In fact, I think for him, it’s no longer about revenge at all. Or if it is, that’s something he’s buried pretty deep. I think it’s about me now. I think he’s…”
Howard paused and looked down, embarrassed.
Because he’s in love with you, Richard thought.
“…I think he’s obsessed with me,” Howard said. “With… having me.”
Richard could sense how deeply disturbing that thought must be for the boy. And for the first time, he thought he really understood how traumatic the possessions had been for Howard. He felt a rush of compassion for the boy, but forced it down. This was no time to feel sentimental. They had work to do.
Finally, Billy spoke. “I don’t know about Justin, but Mattie is still close by. I think she’s in the house across the street. I can still sense her there. Maybe Justin is still with her?”
Billy and Richard were silent as they considered this.
“So, do we go looking for him? For them?” Billy asked. “We could just walk right over there, right now…” He looked like he was ready to go at that very instant, until Richard held up his hand. An idea had occurred to him. It was a crazy idea, and it would mean asking something huge of Howard Gunderson. Something Richard had no right to ask of anybody.
“Wait,” he said. “I have another idea. But it’s… It’s not going to be easy. I need you both to hear me out.”
Billy sank back, and Howard pulled out a second chair and sat as well. They both stared at Richard as he stood over the map at the end of the dining room table.
“Howard says the one thing that Justin wants… is him. He says he wants him more than revenge, or anything else. Is that right?”
“I think so, but I may be wrong…” Howard began, tentatively.
“Richard, you can’t…” Billy began. But Richard cut him off. It was important for him to say it, not Billy.
“Howard, what if I possess you, and take you out there? Into the street. We draw Justin out. Billy, would Justin be able to tell that Howard was already possessed?”
Billy looked stunned, and he answered blankly. “I don’t know. I don’t think so…”
Howard looked pale. “Richard, I…”
“Wait, Howard. Please hear me out. If we can get him to meet me inside you, the way I met him inside Pil, I may be able to hold him there. I could… I don’t know, I could promise him something to get him to tell me where the Wanderer is. Once I know, then I can throw him out the way I did earlier. And then we can go after Drouillard. In fact, I could use you to find him. Use your hands to kill him.”
There. I’ve said it. God forgive me, Richard thought.
Billy stared at Richard, agape. “And what could you promise Justin that would make him tell you that?”
Richard took a deep breath and met Howard’s shocked, pale stare. “I could promise him what he wants. I could promise him you, Howard.”
Howard had been following this exchange with his mouth open, as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. And now he was shocked into silence. The blank look he had suddenly changed, and what Richard saw in his eyes was fury. The very look silenced everyone. When Howard spoke, his voice was low, but as sharp as a razor.
“So… you want to… possess me… to use me as a tool, the way the demons are using the innocents all over this city? You want to promise the ghost who killed you, and who…” he paused. “The ghost who raped me, that if he gives you what you want, he can have me. He can stay in me forever. That’s what you want?”
“Howard, you won’t have to do it,” Richard said, his words frantic and rushed. “It will be a lie! We just need him to believe it!”
“He’ll be in my fucking head, Richard!” Howard practically screamed at him, jumping to his feet. “You don’t think he’ll know that you’re lying? And you don’t know what it takes to push him out once he’s in there! It’s been harder for me every time… What if you can’t do it? What if we can’t?” His eyes narrowed, and Richard saw genuine fear in them, cowering behind the bravado and the anger.
“Richard… What if you can’t… or…” Howard leaned forward, and Richard thought he could almost feel his breath on his face. “What if you won’t?”
Richard looked away and started to protest, but Howard cut him off.
“Absolutely fucking not, Richard. The answer is no! There is no way I’m letting anybody back into my head.” He punctuated each word with his fist on the table. “You have no idea what it’s like. I’m not doing it. I don’t care if this whole fucking city burns. I’m just not!” Howard was trembling now, and his hands were pressing so hard on the table that Richard feared it might collapse.
Finally, he calmed.
“And besides,” Howard said, straightening up and unfurling his fists. Right now my priority is protecting those two men out there.” he gestured toward the living room. “It’s what you asked me to do. To get Keith out of here. I’m still going to do that. It’s what I was trying to do before everything went to shit. I failed at the gas station, and now Michelle’s dead, and I’ll never forgive myself for that. And that’s another reason I can’t abandon them. Richard, I can’t save this city, but I can save these two. I can save Keith. Be fucking grateful for that.” He visibly relaxed and looked directly into Richard’s eyes, who found it difficult to hold the boy’s gaze.
“You and Billy go to Dugway, if that’s what you want to do. When you get there, find somebody else to use. Hopefully, a soldier with a gun. But you’re staying out of my fucking head.”
Howard’s vehemence left Richard speechless. But more than his disappointment that Howard would not help them find Drouillard, he realized the boy was right. He had asked him to take care of Keith, and Howard was committed to doing that, even now, and even if it meant protecting him from Richard himself. He was moved and put his hand on Howard’s shoulder. Almost weeping, he said, “I understand, Howard. And I am grateful. It means… everything.”
Howard smiled strangely, and his tension waned. “It’s okay, Richard. After killing you, I think it’s the least I can do,” he said.
After a silence, Billy spoke. He’d been watching this confrontation, just waiting for it to play out to the end. An end that didn’t appear to surprise him at all.
“So, it’s decided. Howard, you will get Pil and Keith out of town. Richard, you and I will leave for Dugway. We’ll just have to hope we’re right, and that Drouillard is there.”
They were all silent for a moment. Finally, Richard took a deep breath. He had one more card to play, and it was perhaps the most audacious of all.
“No, we have one other option.” They looked at him, confused. “Think about it,” he continued. “We need a living person to help us kill Drouillard, if he is in Dugway. And we need a medium to protect Keith and get him and Pil out of town.” He leaned forward onto the table and looked directly into Howard’s eyes.
“Howard, if you could be sure that someone else could protect Keith… could keep him safe, and get him out of town, would you help me, then? Would you go with me to Dugway and help me end this?”
Howard didn’t have a chance to respond before Billy jumped in.
“But there isn’t anybody else, Richard. Howard is our only medium,” Billy said.
“Yes. Unless we make another,” Richard said.
Both Howard and Billy looked confused for a moment, and then they both realized what Richard was suggesting.
“You’re talking about Pil,” Billy said.
“I am.” Richard said, simply.
“You want to possess him again, to make him into a medium,” Billy said, with something between awe and disgust in his voice.
“Richard, weren’t you listening to me?” Howard moaned. “You don’t know how much of a violation it is to be possessed. I told you it feels like rape. It fucking is rape! Who knows how many times you’d have to possess Pil to make him a medium? How could you do that to him?”
And at that moment, Pil cleared his throat.
The big man was standing with his arms at his side, in the shadowed hallway, looking into the dining room. There was no way for Richard to know how long the man had been standing there, or what he’d heard. Richard tried to imagine what this conversation would have sounded like to him, seeing only Howard, and hearing only Howard’s words. And he quickly realized that even after only hearing just one third of what was said, Pil had to know exactly what he had suggested. As he looked in the big man’s eyes, he knew Pil understood everything. Perfectly.
The look on Pil’s face was furious. Both of his huge hands were clenched in massive fists that looked as if they could smash everything to pieces. The muscles under his tattoos rippled, and the veins in his neck pulsed like snakes.
Richard started to speak. “Pil, I…” But he stopped, knowing that Pil couldn’t hear him. To him, the room was empty, except for Howard Gunderson.
Richard suddenly feared for Howard’s life.
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.