June 2, 8:13 pm
Their life together had a constancy, and a simplicity. Theirs was a routine that many couples would have found either boring or stifling, but to Richard and Keith, it was the very regularity of their lives together that made each day so comforting, and so precious.
Each evening, at 6:30, they would have their dinner. Keith usually cooked, but Richard made a few specialty dishes that they both loved as well. When they finished their dinner, and on those evenings in which they had no other plans (which were most evenings, to be perfectly honest), they would retire to the living room to watch one or two episodes of whatever show they had become addicted to at that point in their lives. The shows were usually thrillers or dramas, with a good dose of science fiction and fantasy thrown in from time to time. When the episode was over, Richard would click off the TV, and Keith would crawl across the couch (if he hadn’t done that already because the show was particularly scary), and snuggle up against Richard’s chest like a puppy. And they would stay like that for at least fifteen or twenty minutes every night, just talking and luxuriating in the love they shared.
Those moments of quiet and peace each night were the still point upon which Richard Pratt’s life revolved. The feeling of Keith’s soft and warm body snuggled up against his own, the feel of his lover’s arms around him, and the slightly floral smell of Keith’s hair, were always intoxicating.
Often those evenings would linger, and they would remain there in the silence as the sun went down and the room pitched itself into darkness. Sometimes they would keep a companionable silence. And yes, sometimes they would make love, either there, or upstairs in the bedroom. But some of the sweetest of Richard’s memories were the evenings they had held each other in the evening glow and just talked; the gentle words and the long silences between them as peaceful and as renewing as moonlight on a summer’s night.
But on the evening he died, their conversation had been different. It had been long, heartfelt, and melancholy.
Richard had lost all the memories of the hours before he died, but now, in the fever dream of his reset, he had been given one last gift by the Wanderer. And Richard’s recollection of that last day developed like a print, hung up by some cosmic photographer…
“Talk to me, Poppa Bear,” Keith said, careful to keep his head down against Richard’s chest. The fact that he didn’t look up into his eyes told Richard that this was going to be a serious conversation. “You’ve seemed distracted and sad the last few days.”
Yes, of course he had. For the last week, Richard had been fighting a growing anxiety and a sense of unease that was very unlike him. He had been prone to anxiety all his life, but it had always been episodic. It would flash into his life as a panic attack, and then be gone almost as quickly. But this last week had been different. As he had felt it growing, like a darkness in his heart, he had been struggling to find words to describe it, even to himself. He did not know that Keith had noticed, and he was disappointed. He’d tried so hard to suppress it, hoping that it would pass with time.
“You know you have,” Keith said, breaking Richard’s reverie. “I’ve been giving you a chance to work it through. I know sometimes you’re uncomfortable talking about this kind of stuff. But I’ve known for a week that something’s wrong.” He finally pulled back enough to look up into Richard’s eyes. He touched the older man’s beard and then kissed him lightly. “Tell me,” he said.
Richard knew it would be useless to deny it. Keith was the most emotionally hyper-aware man he had ever known. Even when he wished the younger man would miss his mood swings and strange emotions, he rarely did.
“I don’t know, Baby Bear. Yeah, I’ve been feeling weird. I think I’m just feeling my age.”
“You’re only fifty-seven!” Keith said with a laugh. “I don’t think that makes you an old bear. Besides, like I always tell you, I think you’re about twelve. At least, your sense of humor is.”
Richard laughed and kissed Keith’s forehead. “Easy for a thirty-something cub to say,” he laughed. “Tell me that when you’re pushing sixty.”
Keith rubbed Richard’s belly, which had grown substantially the past few years. “Maybe then I can call you Grandpa Bear rather than Poppa Bear.”
“If I’m still around,” Richard sighed.
Keith straightened up instantly and pushed himself back from Richard. His playful manner had disappeared. “Of course you’ll still be around! Why would you even say something like that?”
Richard pulled Keith closer—almost into his lap. “Because when you’re sixty, I’ll be eighty-five. And Baby Bear, my family rarely lives that long. My mom died fairly young. My father died in an accident, but lots of other men in my family died of cancer, or heart disease.” He ran his hand down the back of Keith’s head. “I don’t think the odds are in my favor to live to a ripe old age with you.”
“Is that what you’ve been thinking about?”
“Partly. I guess.”
“Richard, you’re fine…” Keith said, sounding exasperated.
“I know. I guess it… It’s hard to describe. I didn’t use to think about death a lot. But lately, I have been. I’ve been having these… weird thoughts.”
“What kind of thoughts?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t call them premonitions or anything. It’s not like I’m feeling a sense of doom, like something is going to happen to me. But I can’t stop thinking about death. About what it means. About…”
Richard was shocked for a moment, but then he nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about Justin, too. How did you know?”
Keith looked up at him. “You’re early this year.”
“Early? What do you mean?”
“Well, in case you haven’t noticed it, you usually start feeling this way around September. That’s when Justin died. It’s why it’s always been so hard for you to face going back to classes in the fall.”
Richard had not made that connection. And he was shocked that Keith would not only remember exactly when Justin had died, but would see a link with his mood swings each fall. It surprised him, but he didn’t doubt for a second that it was true.
“I don’t know if it’s about Justin… this time.”
“Are you sure? It usually is.”
There was a silence between them that drew out for close to a minute. Richard wanted to assure Keith that his moods had nothing to do with Justin, but the more he thought about it, the less sure he was.
“Can I tell you something else?” Keith asked, wrapping his arms around Richard’s chest and pulling himself closer. “You might think this is weird, but you’re not the only one that’s been thinking about Justin.”
Richard felt a chill run up the back of his neck, and for a moment he wanted to laugh, but Keith sounded very serious.
“For some reason, I’ve been thinking about all that you and he went through. Everything you told me. For years, I’ve always felt like you were far too rough on yourself for how that all went down. But lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about him. And how confusing and hurt he must have been. He was so young. He must have felt so confused by everything. I remember what it was like to be that age. It’s tough.”
Richard felt a sob building in his throat, but instead of letting it out, he just buried his face in Keith’s thick, black hair, and breathed in his scent. The weight of the younger man against his chest felt so comforting that he almost didn’t want to keep talking. All he wanted to do was kiss his lover, and then take him upstairs, and spend a sweet hour making love to him. But neither of them moved, and the room grew a little darker.
“There’s another way I can tell you’ve been thinking about Justin,” Keith said, breaking the silence.
“Really? How is that?” Richard asked.
“You turn into a complete mother hen. Even worse than usual. Yesterday you didn’t want me to drive to the store because it was raining. Like I haven’t been driving a car for twenty years.”
“I wasn’t worried about you. I was worried about all the other drivers.” Richard said, with a smile. It was a joke they’d made for years.
“Uh huh,” Keith said, and Richard could almost hear him rolling his eyes. Keith loosened his grip so that he could turn onto his back and put his head in Richard’s lap. He was smiling now in the gloom, and as he looked up, his chubby hands started toying in Richard’s beard. Stroking his face. It felt delicious.
“It wasn’t just the driving, Poppa Bear. I’ve been feeling you… I don’t know how to say it. I guess ‘holding on too tight’ is the best words I can use. It’s hard to put my finger on it better than that.”
Richard tried to smile and make a joke of it. “I just want to make sure you’re not going to run off and be Pil and Michelle’s boy toy. That’s all.”
They both laughed, but Keith quickly got serious again. He reached to the end table and switched on the weak lamp they kept there so he could see Richard’s face.
“So, if it’s not about Justin, then what is it about? What have you been chewing over in that big, over-active brain of yours?”
Richard sighed and looked down at Keith. By the glow of the lamp, he could see the concern in his lover’s eyes, even though he was trying to keep the conversation light. He knew he had to be as honest as he could be, even though he had not successfully put any of this in words, even to himself.
“It’s just that I wonder… and I worry… about what things will be like for you after I’m gone.” He expected Keith to interrupt him, and tell him he shouldn’t be worrying about such things, but his husband just kept gazing into his face, his expression rapt and serious. Richard felt him take his hand and clasp it to his chest. And then he just waited for Richard to continue.
“I mean, I try not to worry about things like that. But I think it’s the kind of thing you think about when you get older. You start having little aches and pains, and you worry every one is the sign of something horrible that could spell imminent doom. Then that ache or pain goes away, and you relax, but then you get something else. A heart flutter. A sharp pain in your head. A weird pain in your belly. Things like that. And before you know it, your mind is working overtime, and every scenario is full of doom and gloom. Eventually… well, eventually you’re imagining yourself dead, and wondering what that even means. For yourself. For the people you love.” He touched Keith’s cheek. “For you…”
“Richard, you know I’d be okay. I’d survive.”
“I know, Baby Bear. But I think it’s not even that, really. It’s just…” He tried to speak slowly, choosing his words carefully. “If I were to die… This is going to sound weird, but if I were to die, I don’t know if my heart could handle it. I lost Justin… I…”
I killed Justin, he thought, but he didn’t allow himself to say it out loud.
“…I lost Justin because I wasn’t there when he needed me. If there ever came a time that you needed me, and I wasn’t there… because I’d died… It would…”
“It would kill you.” Keith said. Richard wondered if he was trying to be funny, but his expression was absolutely serious. Keith lifted Richard’s hand from his chest and gently kissed it. And then reached up with his free hand to touch Richard’s cheek. He felt his tears moistening his lover’s fingertips.
“You think I don’t have those kinds of thoughts?” Keith asked.
“Do you?” Richard asked, surprised.
“Yup. I do. Thoughts about me dying, I mean. Sometimes, they’re even worse thoughts than yours.” Keith closed his eyes, and his voice seemed strange and distant. “Sometimes I even catch myself thinking about it obsessively. I imagine you alone in this house without me. Walking from room to room, looking at all my books. Looking at my clothes in the closet. Finding all my journals… Hundreds and hundreds of pages of them. And me being simply and utterly and forever gone. I imagine you giving away my books to our friends. I think of all the unread poetry that will stay in my journals, perhaps even boxed up and put away because you can’t bear to see them, but also can’t bear to part with them, knowing how important and intimate they were to me. I imagine all those notebooks being in a box in the garage for a decade or two, as you grow old without me. Then at some point, after we’ve both gone, or maybe even before, they’re sent to the recycling center along with the empty soup cans and cereal boxes…”
“Oh, Baby Bear, please stop…” Tears were running down Richard’s face and into his beard. “I honestly never thought about you dying before me. And I don’t think I can stand thinking of it now…”
“But Richard, don’t you see? It’s something we have to think about. It’s human. It’s our story. I know you’re older than me, and so yeah, I’ve thought about you dying too. But to me, you’re the rock I’ve built my life upon. I can’t even imagine a time when you aren’t here with me. I know you worry about dying, and leaving me. But I just need you to know that I’ve thought of things like that too. It’s inevitable. Unless we’re lucky enough to die together in a plane crash, one of us is going to lose the other. Eventually.”
“And how do we live with that?” Richard asked, wiping the tears from his cheeks.
“I don’t know,” Keith said, slowly. “I guess that’s why I write poetry. I’ve always been attracted to this idea that we stay alive in the world as long as we are remembered. That even if you die, you are still connected to the world of the living, because the ones that love you still remember you. I once read a legend, that there is a City of the Dead, and when you die, you go there. You live in the city of the dead until the last person on earth forgets your name. It’s a lovely and romantic notion. And it embodies the hope that there is a way station between life and death. A world that connects the two. And that it is the love and connections we’ve made here in our lives that keeps us close to those we’ve lost.”
“And what happens when the last person you love is gone?” Richard asked. “When no one here remembers your name?”
Keith just shrugged. “I guess that’s the mystery. Maybe that’s the point where the last string parts, and the balloon is free. Maybe we just drift peacefully to the other side. Whatever that is.”
Now it was Richard’s turn to kiss Keith’s hand and hold it against his wet cheeks. “Maybe that’s easier for you, Baby Bear. You’ve always believed that there is another side. I haven’t. My fear is that I won’t have to wait until the last person forgets my name. My fear is that the second I die, it will be me that forgets. Because there won’t be anything left of me to remember.”
“That seems very nihilistic.”
“Maybe. But the world is nihilistic. And I think that’s part of what’s been on my mind these past weeks. Everything right now feels so fragile. And I don’t just mean my life or my health. Just… everything. Sometimes I feel like this entire planet is this incredibly impossible miracle that is held together by our spit, our imagination, and our own collective belief. And that it would only take a tiny tip in the scales—maybe one person realizing that it was all an illusion all along—to make it all begin to unravel. And that if it ever truly began to unravel, nothing would stop it. Soon the earth would be nothing more than another dead cinder floating in space.”
“Okay, I said than seems nihilistic,” Keith said, trying to smile. “Let me take out the word ‘seems’…”
Richard laughed. “Don’t worry, my love. It’s just your crazy Poppa Bear thinking way too much for his own good.” He traced the soft, pink outlines of Keith’s lips with his index finger, and then smoothed his dark eyebrows with a gentle caress. “I just hope, that if I ever have to go, I at least have a chance to say goodbye. My mother died without me being able to say goodbye. And Justin…”
“Poppa Bear,” Keith said. “You tell me both hello and goodbye every time you say you love me.”
That thought struck Richard dumb, and he looked at his lover, clearly not understanding what he meant. He waited for Keith to explain.
“What I mean is, every time you say you love me, nothing unfinished or unspoken sits between us. Every time you tell me you love me, it’s like…” now Keith was struggling for the words. “…it’s like everything is put into balance. Like anything that we get from that moment on is just an extra gift. Every time you tell me you love me, we’ve cemented into place all that we’ve shared. Richard, nothing you or I do or think or say or believe or wish for is going to prevent one of us from being plucked from this tree, if the farmer (or the wind or some idiot in a car) decides it is our time. None of your philosophizing about not going into the grave without taking a handful of clover with you will prevent it. None of my poetry will prevent it. In the end, my poetry and your philosophy are just two of the quaint and quirky things about us we use to hold off the inevitable. And when we’re gone, they’ll just be memories that the people we love can share in maudlin moments, after too much beer, or on sad anniversaries.”
Richard’s tears had stopped, and he felt a peace settling over him. He looked into his lover’s eyes. With perhaps more feeling and more presence than he had ever felt, he said, “I love you, Keith Woo.”
Keith levered himself up out of Richard’s lap and knelt on the couch, facing him, grasping both his hands. His expression had changed, but Richard couldn’t quite make out what his husband was feeling.
“I know you love me, Richard. But I also know that you’ve never really trusted our relationship. You’ve never really given yourself over to it. I’ve always known it was because of Justin, and the pain you went through when he died. It’s left you burdened with a fear of loss. I’ve tried to understand, but I have to admit that it hurts me sometimes. I know you are afraid of giving yourself over to us, and I think your obsessing over death is just one more way that you have of keeping yourself isolated. Poppa Bear, you can’t be 100% with me, until you let go of Justin. And let go of all the pain and regret that you’re harboring over what you feel you did to him.”
“I’ve tried…” Richard started.
“I know you have. But Richard, I need you to know something important. And I need you to really know it. I’m not Justin. I never will be. You don’t need to take care of me or protect me. I’m going to be fine. And I’m going to love you forever, no matter what. This here,” he took Richard’s hand in his and squeezed it. “This is not fragile. This is the strongest thing in the world. It’s the only thing that really matters. And we’re both amazingly blessed to have it.”
In that moment, Richard felt something breaking, being released, and a love for Keith he had never felt washed over him. He pulled his lover into his arms and held him with more tenderness and gratitude than he had ever held any man in his life. And he realized that both of them were crying now. He pulled Keith’s face back and kissed him. And kept kissing him until their tears mingled, and then stopped, and they could laugh again.
The world outside had fallen into darkness. There was only the single lamp on in the entire house, and it cast a pale, ghostly glow around the living room. But the light was warm and inviting, and Richard could imagine the two of them living forever in this house. Growing old together. And whatever years the universe chose to give them, he promised himself that from this moment, they would be years filled with gratitude and joy.
This is the beginning, Richard thought.
Keith finally extricated himself from Richard’s arms and stood up next to the couch. He put out a hand and gave his lover his warmest smile.
“It’s late, my love,” Keith said, “and we both have work in the morning. Let’s call it a night. I need to be naked in your arms. Take me to bed.”
Richard took his hand and allowed his lover to lead him away from the couch. At the doorway into the hall, he paused. “Keith?” he said. His lover stopped and turned. “If something ever does happen to me…”
Keith leaned forward and put a finger to Richard’s lips. “Shhh…” he said. “Remember what I told you. You don’t need to say goodbye.”
Richard smiled. “I remember. I just need to say that I love you.” Keith nodded.
“I love you, Keith,” Richard said.
“I love you too, Richard,” Keith said, and his face was glowing, as the two held each other, and smiled.
The shattering of glass was the last thing Richard Pratt heard. But the last thing he saw was the love in his husband’s eyes.
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.