The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 3.40: In the Stone Fortress

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, 2:35 pm

It was as if Howard’s invitation had purified and sanctified them both.

Richard’s regrets and guilt over what he had done to Justin, although they were not healed, were set aside for a moment, the way a drowning swimmer might strip himself of wet clothing that threatened to drag him to the bottom of the sea. He instantly knew what had happened, although he did not know how Howard had achieved it. He knew what it was like, not only to use the Fourth Gift, but also to share the mind of the possessed. But he did not know how a medium could be so powerful as to actually pull in a ghost’s soul, rather than the other way around.

Let alone two at once.

When he and Justin had been inside of Pil, they had battered each other physically, and that memory was still fresh in Richard’s mind. He knew that in this realm, the one thing that he had been unable to overcome in the world of the living might no longer be an obstacle. No longer would Justin’s fists pass through him like smoke. And no longer would Richard’s arms find nothing but air when he tried to embrace the boy.

Here, just maybe, it can all be different.

But as his vision cleared, the landscape in which Richard found himself was strange. He expected to find them once again in the house where he had died, or in some distant memory from the past that he and Justin had shared. But instead, he recognized this place only from stories the boy had told him, as they had held each other naked on countless evenings over the sweltering summer they had spent together.

On those nights, Justin had told Richard everything. He told his mentor and lover of growing up in a mountain town outside of Salt Lake. And how he had found solace from the doubts and fears of his adolescence in long hours of solitude, on a hillside overlooking the town. There was an outcropping of rocks there, Justin had told him, that loomed twenty feet tall, with nooks and crannies where the adolescent boy could easily hide. He confided in Richard how he had confronted his fears and his longings there. He had brought books that challenged his mind, studying languages and reading the works of Bradbury and Tolkien—imagining himself anywhere but in his lonely mountain town. He had written those dreams down in his journals and drawn creatures both beautiful and monstrous in the margins. And especially, he had explored his own body, stripping himself naked and inflicting both pleasure and pain on the flesh that seemed so eager for all of it. He would purposefully press the sharp rocks into his arms, legs, buttocks, and scrotum until tears ran from his eyes. He would tease and explore and stroke his tender flesh until it responded with ecstasy, and then he would stare, fascinated by the pearly semen that dripped from the lichen-covered rocks.

The stone fortress was the perfect sanctuary for a lonely and sad boy, desperately dreaming of a world outside of the one he had been born into.

Richard climbed to his feet and saw Justin there now, huddled low among the rocks, looking as young as the day they met. The boy cowered in the rock alcove as if he was confused about not only how he had gotten there, but about who he was.

Howard’s invitation has stripped even more from him than it has from me, Richard thought.

Before Justin could get his bearings, and before he could react and decode in his mind who this man was standing above him, Richard dropped to his knees, next to the boy he had loved so much that summer so long ago, and folded him into his arms.

Richard let out a desperate sound as he realized that yes—this was not a ghost he was holding. The boy in his arms was the one he remembered. He was alive! His shoulders were firm! He could smell the boy’s skin, and (oh god!) he could feel the boy’s arms that were wrapping themselves around him now with an intensity and a quivering need that tore loose sobs from Richard.

It was the loving, desperate, nurturing embrace he remembered them sharing when they were first together, before things went so horribly wrong. This was the same tender, compassionate, and hungry boy who had stolen his heart.

The one I wronged so utterly, he thought, taking on the weight of those burdens he had discarded only moments before.

Both Richard and Justin were weeping now, desperately clinging to each other as if they could squeeze the pain out of their hearts in the embrace. And despite the tears, Richard’s heart felt full. These were tears of love and grief and sadness, but not tears of frustration and rage. And he welcomed them.

“I have you, sweetie,” he said, softly into the boy’s ear. “I’ve got you. It’s okay. I have you…”

Justin’s words were hard to hear, and so full of tears that they sounded more like the cries of an animal than the young man he remembered. He felt the boy’s hands grasp his shirt and pull them together so roughly that they both nearly fell together into the dust. Finally, he made out some of the words.

“Oh, Professor,” Justin whimpered, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry… I’m so, so sorry!”

“I love you, Justin. I always have. And I always will. I’m so sorry, for everything. But I have you now, and it’s all going to be okay. I’m going to make it okay…”

And in that moment, Richard allowed himself to believe that he had found his redemption. He allowed himself to believe that Justin had forgiven him, and that somehow this ghostly embrace in this unreal place would be enough to heal all the pain, all the betrayal, and all the rage that had grown between them since that fateful day.

That horrible day when I lied and told him I didn’t love him, and never had.

But even as he tried to grasp that hope and hold it close, he felt it slipping away.

He had indeed set aside his despair, his regret, and his guilt over what he had done. But Howard’s invitation had only allowed him to set them aside for a time. Howard’s blessing, and this place, had not healed those wounds. As the memory of them crept back into his soul, and as the weight of them bore him down once again, Richard knew that there would be no healing for him. He could never make right what he had done. And the regret for it all made him want to cry out.

This moment of transcendence could only be a moment. It was a gift that Howard had somehow given the two men. But even Howard’s pure spirit could not sustain it indefinitely. Richard knew Howard was strong. He was capable of great compassion and sacrifice. But not even Howard Gunderson could change the past.

And in despair, he sensed that Justin too was losing Howard’s grace.

Slowly, Richard felt his former lover’s arms unwrap themselves from around his back. He felt the boy push him away, and only then did he realize that Justin was no longer crying. Neither of them were. The face of the boy that looked into his eyes as he pushed him away was no longer the pure face of the innocent boy who had spent so many days here on this hillside, yearning for a life beyond Utah; yearning for a life that Richard Pratt would first offer, and then steal from him.

Now those eyes were once again hard, defiant, and cruel.

Defeated, Richard allowed his arms to drop as well, and he fell back against the rock. He was still just inches away from Justin, but the gap between the two men had once again become immense and impossible.

Nothing is solved, he thought, his heart cracking in his chest. Nothing is ever healed. Pain and loss and regret can never be healed. It’s the essence of what it means to love. To be human.

Feeling more hopeless than he had ever felt in his life, Richard stared into Justin’s eyes, which looked back on him as if they were made of cold steel.

“Justin,” Richard said, remembering why he had come here. What Howard had risked so much to give him an opportunity to do. “We need your help. Will you help us?”

Justin just continued to stare, but now Richard thought he could detect a tiny and cruel smile growing in the corners of the boy’s mouth. It was as if he knew what Richard was about to ask, and was only waiting for his chance to deal this, his final and most devastating blow against the man who had betrayed him.

“We think we know where God is,” Richard continued, although his heart no longer felt as if it was in the fight. “But we need to know if we’re right… We need to go to him, and… stop him from what he is doing to this city. We need your help.”

Justin just stared at Richard so long that he was about to give up on the boy replying. And his stare ripped at Richard’s chest with such sharp talons that soon all Richard wanted to do was to flee from this place. To find his way off this hillside, out of Howard’s mind, and run as far away from Justin’s judgmental eyes as he could possibly run.

Consolation and redemption are an illusion, Richard thought. Or, perhaps, this moment is simply the burning away of the last humanity in Justin. And in me.

Finally, Justin leaned forward until his face was only inches from Richard’s. His tears had dried now, but the marks they had left on the boy’s face were still visible. The illusion of this place was so complete that Richard could see the reflection of the lichen-covered rocks and the clear blue sky in the boy’s hard gaze. He could even feel the boy’s breath against his lips.

A hard smile crossed Justin’s face.

“I don’t forgive you, Richard,” the boy said. “I don’t care anything for God now. But I also don’t need to destroy you. Not anymore. And do you know why? I don’t need to destroy you, because you will destroy yourself. Maybe, you already have.” He leaned back hard against the rock and actually shrugged his shoulders. “You are damned, Richard Pratt, and all that is left is for God to consume your broken soul.”

Richard could not bear to look into the boy’s eyes for another moment. He let his gaze fall to the shattered rocks under their knees.

“You want to know where he is?” Justin continued. “I can tell you. Precisely. I can send you right to him. But I want something in return.”

Richard knew exactly what Justin was going to ask, and he forced himself to look back into the boy’s eyes to hear it. He owed him at least that. He owed the boy the respect of looking into his eyes when he rejected his demand.

“I want you out,” Justin said. “And I want to stay here. Forever.”

Justin looked triumphant. “You want God? That’s easy. I’ll give you God. You give me Howard Gunderson.”

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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