The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 3.33: Fox in a Snare

Book Three — The Stone in the Stream

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 16, 1:45 pm

Justin could not have been more surprised, or more pleased, to see Howard Gunderson emerge from the house alone, and walk into the center of the street.

Cautiously, he scanned the neighborhood around the boy, who stood with his palms open and his eyes lifted to the sky. Howard had left the door to the house open, and Justin squinted, trying to see if Richard lurked there.

Where did the bastard go? Is he still somewhere inside the house? Did he go after Keith to protect him? Did he just abandon Howard, having no use for him now that Keith was gone?

The questions ricocheted across Justin’s mind, but he didn’t allow himself to dwell on them. The fact of the matter was that Richard Pratt was nowhere to be seen, and Howard, the boy he loved and the boy he desired, was standing in the street with his arms outstretched. Vulnerable… and alone.

“Justin!”

He heard his own name through the glass of the window, muffled but clear. Not only was Howard alone, but he was actually calling to him!

Does he finally understand that I’m his destiny? Justin wondered. Has he given up any struggle to resist his fate?

He knew he should be cautious, but now that he could see Howard again, his obsession became so strong that nothing but possessing the boy mattered. He couldn’t even take the time to go down the stairs, but launched himself through the upstairs wall, chancing a reset in his desperation to get to his victim. He landed heavily in the yard and was on his feet and racing across the lawn within seconds.

Howard is right there. Standing in the street. Waiting for his new master. Justin’s ghostly body quivered in anticipation of the delights to come.

The boy looked calm and serene. His tire iron was gone and his hands were open, palms to the sky. His head was tipped back, baring his soft, pink throat, and only the beat of his pulse there betrayed his terror. Justin thrilled with anticipation, and he vowed not to let the boy expel him this time. He was stronger now. He wouldn’t give him a chance to resist. He would push the boy’s mind so far down into the well that he could never claw his way out.

That is, except when I decide to bring the boy up to play from time to time.

He knew he would. He longed to feel that sweet young body as his own. He longed to feel that tender mind, suffering. He longed to bathe in that pain and terror until it dripped from his eyelashes and fingertips.

“Justin!” the boy’s voice said, stronger this time, but with a strange lilt to it that was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place.

Justin darted quickly into the street on all fours, like some kind of ghostly, human-shaped spider. He stopped less than a car’s length from the boy, preparing his hatred the way that God had taught him.

He is so soft and vulnerable. So fragile. And he longs for me to bend and break him as much as I long to do it.

Preparing his leap into the boy, Justin realized he was still a little afraid of Howard. More than he should be, by any reasonable measure. The tire iron was gone. The boy looked helpless. And Richard was nowhere to be seen. There was no reason at all that he should be afraid, and so he pushed that emotion down deep, as his chest rose and his eyes narrowed.

“Hello, my lovely,” Justin hissed, with a still and small grin.

He continued to creep forward. They were only a half-dozen steps apart now, and Howard finally brought his chin down and stared blankly into the street before him. Justin wanted to see Howard’s eyes wide with the terror of what he knew was coming. But there was no fear on the boy’s face. There was only resignation, as if he was an exhausted rabbit being circled by a hungry wolf. That weakness triggered the primal blood lust in Justin that all predators knew, and he gathered his strength in his limbs as he prepared to strike…

But at the last moment, before he sprang, Howard looked up and directly into Justin’s eyes. Something about that gaze drained his power. And he knew instantly it was because he was not looking at Howard Gunderson at all. The face he was looking into was Howard’s face, but there was something in the eyes, something in the way his upper lip curled back to reveal his teeth, something in the contempt that radiated from him like heat from a fire…

Richard Pratt!

Justin hissed like a cat and tried to take a step back. But his momentum betrayed him, and rather than retreating, he stumbled and was about to crash at the boy’s feet. And he would have fallen, if the thing that used to be Howard Gunderson hadn’t stepped forward and grabbed his wrist with a hand that shot forth like a striking python.

Justin had never been touched by the living. Not in this way. He had certainly bumped against them and been jostled by them over the years. But never had one looked into his eyes and actually reached out to grab him! He was shocked to realize that rather than possessing Howard, it was actually Howard that now had him! The hand around his wrist was as unbreakable as an iron manacle.

Panic overwhelmed him, and he thrashed. But of course, none of his roaring and writhing had any effect whatsoever on the living being that held his wrist. He might as well have been in the grip of an alligator. Even as he put his feet against the thing’s chest and lifted himself off the ground, trying to pry himself free, he knew that the world of the dead could have no impact on the world of the living. And until Howard (or Richard!) opened his hand, he would never break free.

Unless, he thought, I could take him now!

Abruptly, he ceased his writhing and hung from the boy’s grip like a rag doll. But he gathered his hatred and aimed it toward that familiar red and raw passageway into the boy’s mind, that God had taught him to exploit. There was a gateway there, and he had found it before. He would find it now, and…

“No!” the boy screamed in Richard Pratt’s voice, and immediately Justin felt himself being lifted from the ground by his arm, literally swung through the air like a bag of potatoes—and then smashed down onto the pavement. He impacted the street so hard he felt his arm and at least one rib break. He howled in agony, but the injury was not enough to reset him. The pain flashed through his body like a grenade and immediately ebbed as his ghostly flesh and bones tried to reform themselves.

“Justin, calm down,” Richard said. Justin knew it was Richard. He sensed nothing of Howard Gunderson in the man’s voice now, and he roared in rage, not only because of his pain, but because Richard had robbed him of the boy.

“Damn you, Richard Pratt! Damn you straight to hell, you motherfucker! Give him to me! You have no right! You took me! You killed me! But not Howard! Howard is mine! Let him go! LET ME HAVE HIM!”

The thing lifted Justin through the air again, and swung him into the ground a second time. This time, the pain was even worse, as both healing and fresh bones shattered. Justin was sure he would black out. He screamed, and he longed to be reset, just so that the pain would stop. But his wrist held firm. His body refused to shatter and flee.

“I told you no, Justin!” Richard Pratt said. “Now, will you stop? I’m not here to hurt you! Just calm down. I only need to talk to you…”

Howard could hear someone calling his name. He knew it was Richard Pratt, and that he had long ago (had it been years?) given himself over to him. Both his body and his soul. He felt as if he had been sleeping here in the man’s protective arms for so long that it seemed strange that now he would be summoned.

He didn’t want to go, but he knew he had to. He knew he must obey Richard’s will utterly, and in all things. Even so, as he emerged from the deep dream in which he had finally found peace, he resented it.

Wasn’t the deal that I would give him my body, and he would protect me? Wasn’t the deal that I would never again need to worry or be afraid or be responsible for anything? Wasn’t that the deal?

No, a voice in his mind said. Howard, that wasn’t the deal. I need you! The plan was that you would hold Justin so I could talk to him. I need you to take your body back. I can’t talk to Justin as myself until I am out of your body!

No, I can’t do that, Howard thought. If I push you out, I’ll have to live back in the world. Back in the horrors and hatred and death. You can’t ask that of me!

Howard, get a hold of yourself! I have an angry shark on the line here. I can’t deal with him and with you! Now get the fuck up here and take control of your fucking body! DO IT NOW!

The shock of Richard’s anger was like a bucket of water in the face. And the next thing he knew, he was with Richard Pratt again, and sharing his eyes. What he saw was a ghost on the ground. It was Justin Kimball, and he was clearly pissed off. He was cursing at Richard with all his might, and even as Richard was talking in his mind to Howard, he was doing his best to keep the thing he had on the ground from breaking free.

Are you here? Richard asked. Howard, tell me you’re here. Tell me you’ll hold on to Justin. I have to step out so he can see me. He’s never going to talk to me if I’m in you. I need him to see me!

I’m here, Richard, Howard said. And I remember. I remember the plan. And I still think it sucks.

Thank God, the older man said, the relief in his voice giving it an audible tremor. Now hold him. Remember that you can’t close your hand, or you’ll cut him off at the wrist. Just hold him. Hold him lightly…

I know…

And if he gives you shit, don’t be afraid to smash him on the street again, if you have to. But for God’s sake, don’t reset him…

All right…

I’m going now. Wish me luck…

The third time that Howard swung Justin through the air and crashed his body to the pavement was by far the worst, as Justin’s head impacted the street with a crack that he felt all the way through his skull and spine. As he lay in misery on the pavement, waiting to be reset, praying that he would be, he suddenly felt something in the boy’s demeanor change.

And Richard Pratt stepped out of him, as if he was stepping out of the shower.

The sudden realization that Pratt had fled the boy affected Justin like a tonic, and gave him the hope that he might possess the boy after all. If he could just get inside, he knew he would be invincible, and nobody could ever break him free again. He shot out his mind, trying his best to ignore the pain and find that red and swollen path of hatred that God had taught him to use so effectively.

“Justin, don’t,” Richard said.

And immediately, Howard Gunderson tightened his grip on Justin’s wrist until he thought it might snap. “Justin, listen to Richard,” Howard said, and now it truly was the boy he remembered who was speaking. “Don’t make us hurt you again.”

Richard was leaning over Justin’s broken body now, and in frustration, Justin took a swing at the man’s face. Of course, the blow passed through Richard as if he was made of light and shadow. Without the Third Gift, there would be no way he could touch another ghost, let alone strike one. And now that Howard had him, there would also be no way that he could escape. Justin suddenly felt like a fox trapped in a snare, and the panic of his helplessness was far more debilitating than any of the pain he was feeling.

Richard was speaking to him now, and he knew that the man was trying to calm him, to dissipate or distract him from his rage. He was only vaguely aware of the words. Finally, Justin shook his head enough to regain his wits, and tune into what the hated old man was saying. And he couldn’t have been more shocked.

Richard Pratt actually appeared to trying to apologize to him!

“…was wrong for using you and walking away the way that I did, just when you needed me the most…”

The thought of this motherfucker actually saying he was sorry only infuriated Justin more, and he stared up at the man with as much hatred as his broken body and his outraged soul could muster.

“I don’t want your fucking apology, Richard,” Justin spat at him. “I want you to suffer!”

“Justin, I need your help. And I know I don’t have the right to even ask for it, after what I did to you. I was wrong, and I was a bastard, and I’m sorry. It’s my fault you became… what you are now. But I’m hoping there is still some good in you. I’m hoping that the brilliant, passionate boy I fell in love with is still in there, somewhere. I’m hoping you’ll see that you can help us stop all this death and destruction.”

“I’m not going to help you, you fuck!” Justin spat. “I’d rather watch you and your piggy boy burn…”

“Please Justin. Just tell us where George Drouillard is…”

Justin stopped struggling and looked at Richard with confusion. He had no idea who “George Drouillard” was. And how did this piece of human garbage even dare to ask anything of him?

“Who?” He asked.

“You know him as God,” Richard said. “But he’s not. He’s a man. He’s a ghost, trapped in a human body. An old man with a white mustache. A soldier, we think. We need to know where he is. We think we know, but we need you to tell us so we can be sure…”

Despite himself, Justin laughed, and that only made the pain coursing through his body that much worse. Suddenly he saw Richard not as his nemesis, or as a foe to be conquered, but as a pathetic insect.

“Are you really asking me about God?”

Justin’s laughter slowly morphed into a howl of rage, and he gathered all his hatred and disgust into a single Molotov cocktail of fury, which he hurled at Richard in a rush. His words exploded between them like a bomb in the air.

“You’re asking about God, you pathetic fuck? How dare you? How dare you even utter his name! You’re less than a mosquito on God’s balls, and he’ll crush you without a thought! Fuck you, Richard Pratt,” he raged, his anger turning to sobs.

“And God damn you! May he damn you and your boy-whore forever!”

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.

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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. His poems and short stories have appeared or journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre, Apparition Literary Journal, Grain, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He loves hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. All of the trilogy's over 207 chapters are available there for subscribers, and new poems, short stories, and other content is posted there every Friday.

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