The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 3.44: The Passion of Howard Gunderson

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, 4:12 pm

Billy found Richard kneeling alone in the street in front of his house. How long he had been there, Billy didn’t know. And he wasn’t sure that Richard knew either.

The sense of defeat that had overwhelmed Billy at the university was only aggravated when he looked upon the pathetic, almost catatonic, shell of his friend. And with a heavy heart, he sank down in front of Richard, their knees almost together. But even as he drew closer, it wasn’t clear that Richard could see him. His eyes were glazed and distant. And although there were no traces of tears there now, Billy was sure that Richard had been weeping—perhaps for quite a long time.

Gently and slowly, Billy reached out and touched the back of Richard’s hand, which lay like a dead thing against his thigh. There was no reaction, which only caused the chill in Billy to grow.

“Richard. I’m here. I’m back. Can you hear me?”

For long moments Richard remained silent, but Billy had the impression that the man had, indeed, heard him. It was clear that Richard was deep in a pit of despair. Billy stared into the man’s cloudy eyes, trying to see if Richard could climb out of that pit, or if he had lost all hope.

Finally, to Billy’s relief, Richard found his voice. But the boy had to lean forward to hear it.

“They’re… they’re gone…” Richard said.

Billy sighed, and he felt the worst of the panic release its icy grip. At least he knows that someone is here. And he still has enough will left to put together words.

“Richard… Please… Try to look at me,” Billy said. “Focus on my voice. Come back.”

And with time, Richard did. It was not quick, and it was not without moments where Billy thought he might lose the man for good. But he did finally come out of the trance that had claimed him.

I have to tell him what happened to Keith and Pil, Billy thought. But I don’t think he can bare it. At least, not yet.

“Richard, tell me what happened,” Billy finally said, even though it risked putting Richard back into a downward spiral. “Where is Howard? Did you find Justin?”

Richard didn’t answer, and it was clear to Billy that the mere mention of those two names was like a knife to the man’s chest. The look of pain and loss that twisted Richard’s features was hard to look upon.

Billy raised a hand to his friend’s face and gently touched his cheek. That touch broke something loose in Richard, and slowly his eyes regained their focus. He looked upon Billy’s face for the first time, and it was the look a drowning man might give to someone who had thrown him a life preserver.

“They’re gone, Billy,” he said. “Howard and Justin. They’re both gone.”

“Gone where, Richard? Can you tell me? What happened?”

The tears welled up in Richard’s eyes again.

“Howard agreed to let me… use him. To use his body to attract Justin. So we could ask him where Drouillard is. God, I wish he hadn’t.”

“Did it work?” Billy asked, hoping to keep Richard talking.

A sad smile crossed the older man’s face, and it somehow made him look even more defeated. “Yes, it worked. Justin came to us. But I was… I was too weak. I couldn’t reach him. I begged and pleaded, while Howard held him. I knelt with him, right here on the street… But he was… There was nothing I could do. Billy, there was nothing there. Nothing but hate and fear and malice. I just… couldn’t reach him. I tried, but I couldn’t…”

The tears were flowing freely now, and Billy interlaced his fingers behind Richard’s neck, and leaned forward until their cheeks were touching. Richard reached up and grasped his hands, and for the first time in a century and a half, Billy actually felt the tears of another person, as they crawled like beetles down the space between their faces, before eventually dripping off and disappearing into the empty air.

“Richard, did he tell you if we were right? Did he tell you where the dry wash is? Is it near Dugway?”

Richard didn’t seem to hear that question. He was lost in his grief now, and it poured out of him with such anguish that Billy hadn’t the heart to interrupt him again.

“I don’t know how he did it. But Howard… pulled us inside of him. Justin and me. We were both in him, like we were together in Pil. I tried to reach him, and for a moment, Billy, I really thought I had! For a moment, he was the sweet boy I fell in love with. I actually held him again. I touched him… and oh Billy, it was… It was everything. Oh, dear God, I actually thought he had forgiven me!”

Billy closed his eyes and listened.

“But that’s not how it works, is it? Life just isn’t like that, Billy. Life is hard and cruel and you can’t fix what you break. All you can do is persist through the pain. Try to bear it. You just can’t heal from the kind of wounds I inflicted on Justin. I thought you could, but I was wrong. It was all an illusion. All bullshit! Nothing was fixed. Nothing can be fixed! Ever!”

“It’s okay, Richard. You tried…” Billy’s words seemed pathetic and weak, even to him, and he immediately wished he hadn’t said them. Richard was wailing now, and his words were harder to understand. But Billy knew Richard had to tell him everything. If not for the sake of this city, for the sake of his own soul.

“So Justin didn’t tell you? He didn’t tell you about Drouillard?”

Richard shuddered and then pulled back his head. His tears stopped so abruptly that it was disorienting. The man looked Billy in the eyes once again, and to his relief, Richard actually seemed clearer, as if he had found a small reserve of strength that might get him through this.

“Yes. He told me. He told me everything. But it… It was at a… horrible price.”

Billy held Richard’s gaze. “What price?”

“Billy… I can’t… Oh God, Billy, he wanted Howard.”

Somehow, Billy had known that was exactly what Richard would say. And he had dreaded hearing those words with all his heart.

“Oh, God, Richard, you didn’t give him the boy, did you? You couldn’t have!”

“No, I didn’t. Billy, I told him no! And I tried to throw him out of Howard, the way that I threw him out of Pil. And I could have too… If he hadn’t stopped me.”

“Justin stopped you?”

Richard looked at him confused, as if he couldn’t understand how Billy could be so naïve as to not understand what he was saying.

“No, Billy… It was Howard. Howard stopped me.”

“What? How could he? And why?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t believe that he had the strength. But there was something in Howard that neither of us saw. There was a clarity in him. A selflessness. A kind of… holiness. That’s the only word I can think of. He seemed to… God, I don’t know… Purify, I guess. He purified both me and Justin when we were in him. But not permanently. And when Justin demanded that I leave Howard and that he intended to stay, I thought for sure Howard would eject us both, as easily as he’d welcomed us in. He could have.  I know he could have!”

“But he didn’t.”

“No. Billy, he said that he was ready to accept Justin’s bargain—to give himself and his body over to whatever twisted thing Justin had in mind—if he would tell me where Drouillard was. I begged him not to do it. But he didn’t even seem to hear me. He was only speaking to Justin, and nothing I was saying made the slightest difference. To either of them. It was almost as if I wasn’t even there.”

“Maybe Howard plans to trap Justin inside of him,” Billy suggested. “Maybe he plans to kill himself. To carry them both out of the Hereafter.”

“No,” Richard said, shaking his head violently now. “It wasn’t like that. It was a bargain. And Howard was being honest. If Justin would tell me where Drouillard is, then he could have him. Forever. On Justin’s terms. And that’s what he did. Justin told me what I needed to know. And he told me… Other things…”

Billy waited to hear what those things were, but Richard was remembering something more painful. Perhaps too painful to put into words. Finally, Richard went on.

“And then I felt Howard’s mind. It actually grabbed me like I was a rag doll, and he was getting ready to throw me out. I begged and pleaded for him not to do it. I even told him that Justin wanted his body the way that Drouillard wanted that military man. That if he gave in to what he wanted, then Justin could become as powerful as Drouillard. And as dangerous. But nothing I said made the slightest difference. Howard was clear that this was what he had to do.”

“Oh God,” Billy said, hanging his head.

“But it wasn’t just that he was clear. Billy, there was almost a kind of joy in it. A kind of… willing submission. A sacrifice. It was strange, and it was terrifying, but it was also… kind of holy. It made me feel small and cruel and… as if I knew nothing of how the universe operated. For a moment, it really felt like Howard had been touched by something way beyond my understanding.”

Billy sank back heavily on his heels. “Maybe he did the right thing. Maybe it was the only answer. But at least we know now where we need to go. That was a gift he gave us. We can’t waste it.”

“I actually heard Howard tell Justin that he… loved him. That he wanted to be together with him always. Billy, I think he actually meant it.” Richard threw back his head and let out a guttural cry before finally letting his chin drop to his chest. What he said next was so quiet that Billy could barely hear.

“Oh, Billy… I know he actually meant it…”

The silence between them grew, and Billy felt miserable, knowing what he must tell Richard now. He had to tell him how he had failed in his promise, and that Keith and Pil were gone.

“Richard, I have something I have to tell you. It’s why I’m back. I didn’t get Keith and Pil to the edge of the Hereafter.”

To his surprise, Richard didn’t even look up. “I think I knew that, Billy. I think I knew it the moment I saw you. I just didn’t dare to ask.” With a Herculean effort of will, Richard squared his shoulders and brought his head up to look into Billy’s eyes. He was expecting the worst, and he needed to hear the words.

“Are they dead? Is Keith… dead?”

“No. At least, I don’t think so. Mattie took them.”

“Mattie?” Richard looked dazed now, trying to comprehend. “How? Why would Mattie…”

“I don’t know, Richard. But I think she’s taking them to Drouillard. I can sense them moving west. They’re already almost out of town. I think they’re heading to Dugway.”

“To the dry wash.” Richard said, simply.

Billy watched as Richard’s mind sputtered to life, like an engine that was old but still refused to die. He was putting together facts in his mind.

“That makes sense,” Richard said, finally. “Howard told me one more thing, just after he told me where Drouillard was. He said he would have told me, anyway. Because his God wanted me there. He said, ‘God has always wanted you there.’”

“Richard, that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s the only thing that does. Billy, you know Mattie is Drouillard’s favorite. He must have sent her to retrieve Keith. Billy, they’re bait. Drouillard used Justin to tell me where he was, and now he’s using Keith to make sure I come to him.”

Billy swallowed. “Mattie’s taken over that detective. The one that was investigating your death. She has a squad car, and she somehow trapped them in the back. I couldn’t see Mattie, but I could sense her.”

“You could sense her? Even after she had possessed the woman? How is that possible?”

“I wish I knew.”

Where Billy had seen little except defeat and resignation in Richard, he now saw a spark of resolve. For all the pain he had suffered at the hands of Justin, and despite the utter defeat he had felt when Howard had sacrificed himself and expelled him, Richard’s mind was desperately grasping for a reason to go on.

And as always, that reason was Keith. Even if he had given up on all else in his life, Richard’s love for Keith was enough to keep him from sliding over the brink.

“I know where he is, Billy,” Richard said, his eyes as hard as two diamonds. “I know where Mattie is taking them. Justin told me, precisely. The place isn’t in Dugway itself, or even on the base. There is a spot in the desert just a mile or two east of the town. It’s just behind a Mormon ward house that is outside the perimeter of the base. That’s the center of the Hereafter. It’s the dry wash that I saw when I confronted Drouillard. It’s the place he calls the ‘Stone in the Stream.’ He’ll be waiting for us there. And he’ll have Keith and Pil.”

Billy studied his own hands and saw they were shaking. He pressed them hard against the black pavement until he felt the trembling slow. “Richard,” he said, “I’m afraid. Why would Drouillard actually want us there? He has to know we’re out to destroy him. What can he be planning?”

“I don’t know. I think it may be just that he wants us to witness the end. Or maybe he just wants to see my face when he kills the man I love. I just don’t know. But Justin thinks everything will end soon. He said that at sundown tonight, it will all be over. And that this city will be dead by morning. It will be ‘a home to sagebrush and wild horses once again.’ That was the phrase he used.”

“Did he tell you anything else? Anything at all you think would help us?”

“I tried to get him to tell me more. But that was all he’d say. Howard picked me up and threw me out after that. Billy, it was like nothing I’d ever felt. Howard seemed to just… will me to be gone from him, like I was… a troublesome thought. And then I was suddenly sprawled across the pavement. He was standing over me, and the boy I saw was no longer Howard Gunderson. It was Justin, through and through. He gave me one last sneer before turning and running. And then he was gone.”

As he spoke, Billy watched a change come over Richard. No longer was he the defeated and broken man he had found in the middle of the street. Billy was now awed, and a little frightened, by the spiritual strength that Richard was radiating. Billy thought that the pain of his defeat at the hands of the boy he once had loved might destroy Richard Pratt. But the chance that he could still save the life of the man he loved had revived him once again.

Slowly, Richard rose to his feet.

He reached down a hand and helped Billy to rise.

“We have to run, Billy. It’s a long way to Dugway. Maybe we can find a bumper or two to ride on. But Mattie is going to beat us there, no matter what we do. We have to go now. We have to get there before sundown. We have to save Keith.”

Billy still felt unsure. “Richard, you know you are now doing exactly what Drouillard wants?”

“I know. But it doesn’t matter. I’m going to save Keith.” It was clear he wasn’t going to argue. “Are you coming with me? Please. I need you.”

The look on Richard’s face told Billy that there was no way that Richard could be talked out of this. If there was the slightest chance he could stop the Wanderer from hurting the man he loved, he was going to take it. Saving Salt Lake City was now barely an afterthought for Richard. Saving Keith was all he cared about. Perhaps, it was all he had ever cared about.

That knowledge pushed Billy closer to despair.

“Of course, I’m coming with you, Richard,” he said.

And so they ran.

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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