June 16, 2:15 pm
To Howard’s surprise, Richard’s plan was working. At least, as far as it went.
As he stood in the middle of J Street, with his hand clasped in what felt to his fingers like open air, but to his eyes looked like the wrist of Justin Kimball, he still felt an odd distance from it all. As if he had been called out of a deep sleep and could not quite come fully awake.
Richard knelt beside the boy, who was writhing and spitting and cursing, but unable to escape. Howard could sense Richard’s frustration and his anguish at this confrontation with the boy he had so grievously betrayed all those years ago. He could sense it, but the little drama still seemed distant, and so devoid of meaning. After what he had experienced since Richard used the Fourth Gift, everything in the world of the living now seemed surreal, flat, and strange.
Now was not the time to tell Richard what had happened to him in the few minutes that he had given himself so willingly and so completely. And Howard suspected he would probably never share it, even if he could find the words. After all, it wasn’t Richard that had wrought the change in him. Richard had been the catalyst, for sure, but he had learned something unexpected about himself in the relinquishing of his physical body. In the decoupling of his soul from the flesh in which it resided, Howard had experienced some kind of… awakening. Richard’s possession had changed him at a fundamental, cellular, spiritual level, in ways that he didn’t even pretend to understand. But it was so profound it had altered his universe.
It is like I was a man, walking alone in the desert, he thought. Walking alone through a vast and empty expanse in a blackness so complete that it was impossible to conceive of anything beyond my own face, beyond my own fingers. And then a billion flashbulbs went off, all at once. Suddenly, the desert in all its glory was illuminated, for hundreds of miles in every direction. And my mind, that could not even conceive of something two inches away, was forced to confront a world more vast, more awe-inspiring, and more beautiful than it could ever imagine.
But then those flashbulbs had winked out. Richard had called him back from the face of God. And he was plunged into darkness once again.
And now, here he was: Howard Gunderson, the young man who had killed someone he had never met. The young man who learned why he had done something so heinous, only to kill again. The man who had found his strength and vowed never to allow his will to be supplanted by another, ever again. And yet, he was also the man who had found peace in that very same submission. The man who knew he would never know lasting peace until he was once again in that deep well, where he had found his soul lurking.
Howard watched Richard and Justin struggling toward their own kind of peace, their own kind of resolution. He heard their words, but so much more was passing between them. Richard kept trying to reach out and touch, to comfort Justin, but the two didn’t share the Third Gift. Justin tried to strike out and hurt Richard. Both of them pawed ineffectually at each other with their very different motives. But their hands and fists passed through each other without the least resistance. Richard’s face was streaked with tears, and he was clearly at a loss for what he could do. Nothing he said was easing Justin’s anguish, or his own. And for his part, Justin was alternating between rage and despair, and nothing Richard did or said could bring him out of it.
There is no ability for these two to touch, Howard thought. Not without my help.
They had reached a stalemate, and without Howard’s intervention, Richard would never get what he needed. Neither of them would.
Maybe easing both their anguish is the only reason I came back. Maybe it’s why I’m standing here like an idiot, and gripping Justin’s wrist like a handful of empty air.
The two ghosts finally collapsed in mutual tears, a foot apart on the pavement, their inability to make a connection hanging in the air between them like a bitter smoke.
Howard was acting, even before he had fully or consciously decided what he was going to do. He knelt before the two ghosts and released Justin’s wrist.
“No, Howard, don’t!” Richard screamed in surprise.
But he was moving quickly, and the two ghosts at his feet just stared at him as he bent down. They both went silent, and looked at Howard’s face, as if they were looking into the eyes of some religious icon, or some benevolent angel.
Howard gently placed his right hand on the back of Justin’s head, and although he could not feel it, he knew the boy was already leaning his head back into his cupped hand. He reached out his left hand and did the same with Richard, cradling the back of his head. Both ghosts were silent and their bodies were slack, as Howard pulled their heads forward, and toward him. He felt as if his hands were holding empty air, but his eyes told him that both ghosts were there, eyes locked on him in wonder, as he drew them closer. They moved, helpless to resist the pressure he was applying.
Howard saw a dawning realization on Richard’s face as the man realized what was happening. The look he gave Howard was half gratitude, and half wonder—but there was no resistance. Justin’s face looked hungry and pained, but he also gave no resistance, as Howard drew both of their foreheads against his own.
For just a moment, the three were one. The living man, and the two ghosts, leaning together in the center of the street, their foreheads touching, like a triad of reunited lovers.
And then Howard began to press… Ever so slightly… Just a fraction of an inch at a time….
He cleared his mind.
He opened the pathway of blue and silver for Richard.
He opened the pathway all red and raw for Justin.
And in an instant, both of the ghosts were inside him again.
Some distant part of his mind fought a rush of panic, a primal need to keep control. But then, with a sigh, he allowed his own will to slip away once again, and he felt himself falling…
It’s up to them now…
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.