June 17 – 18
In the end, there were very few ghosts who did not cross over when their passageways appeared.
When Richard peered into the yellow haze of the Hereafter, he saw that only a handful of stars remained, and with the corrupting presence of the Wanderer now gone, all the stars were now turquoise. The end of the world as they knew it was a great equalizer in the land of the dead. And now all souls, blessed or damned, longed for the same peace.
Even though Richard was able to locate the lost and lonely ghosts that remained, it was Billy that led them from one to another. It was Billy who felt driven to help those who remained to find their way, and Richard was in awe of the boy’s compassion.
Their first stop was the abandoned baby that had so disturbed Richard when Billy showed it to him on the floor of the hospital. The crying child was still there, and still in the same room as its passageway. Billy and Richard found that together, they could now pick up the wailing child. The demise of the Wanderer had granted all ghosts the Third Gift. Gently and carefully, the two ghosts bent down and picked up the child, which instantly quieted as they drew near to the shimmering pool in the otherwise empty hospital room. As if they were tossing a log into a fire, Billy and Richard gently tossed the baby into the golden circle, which hungrily swallowed the child, before winking out of existence.
Richard turned his gaze inward and saw that one more star had disappeared from the yellow expanse of the Hereafter.
Next was the blind boy, who had known that a portal was nearby, but unable to see it, had been wandering helplessly since it opened. Richard and Billy took him by the arms and guided him home. He smiled as he reached out his hands and walked into his destiny.
All that day they worked, methodically moving outward from the city center, finding the weak, the sad, the lost, and the maimed—any who, for one reason or another, could not cross over on their own.
The work was holy to Billy, and despite Richard’s despair, it soon felt sacred to him as well. Each time they helped another soul on its way, Richard would close his eyes, and watch as another star winked out in the yellow firmament of the Hereafter.
Slowly, through almost two days of this sacred work, Richard felt his soul healing. It was not as if hope was returning. He still felt lost and forlorn—helpless in the face of the vast, unfeeling cruelty of the universe. But a small seed of acceptance had found its way into his soul, and it gave him the strength he needed to continue their work.
Billy, too, gave him strength. The boy’s focus and commitment made Richard feel ashamed of his own weakness. Billy was suffused with a holiness that Richard could only observe, and strive to be worthy of it. Billy shone with a spiritual awareness that he knew would be forever beyond his grasp.
My soul is too wounded, and too damaged, to ever find my way to that kind of peace, Richard thought.
Billy asked that they go to Mattie last. Her star, glowing down in Round Valley, was flickering, as if she had been toying with the portal, but not quite finding the courage to step through it. Richard knew Billy wanted to help her, but that he was also hoping she would find her way through on her own. Perhaps it was because Billy dreaded seeing her again, or perhaps the boy was afraid of what seeing him would do to her already fragile and broken soul. Richard did not know, and he respected Billy too much to ask.
On the late afternoon of June 18th, there were only three stars left in the Hereafter: Richard, Billy and Mattie. And so together, the two ghosts began the trip to Round Valley.
By this time, signs of life had begun to appear throughout Salt Lake City. The survivors had mostly emerged from their bunkers, and the military was arriving en masse, convinced that the danger—whatever it had been—had finally passed. Refugee centers were still being set up, not only at the university, but throughout the city, and thousands of volunteers were banding together to house, feed, and comfort the survivors. Morgues were set up in tents around the city, and the grim task of gathering and identifying the dead had begun.
Through it all, the scope of the devastation was coming into focus, and the city was realizing how close it had come to being wiped off the map.
It was while they were riding on the bumper of an open-air military transport headed south that Billy and Richard overheard the conversation of the soldiers, and learned that the current estimate of dead had now surpassed 300,000, and was expected to go higher. That was already a quarter of the 1.2 million people who lived in the Salt Lake Metropolitan area. But for all the death, Richard knew that it could have been far, far worse.
When they arrived in Round Valley, they found Mattie alone on the hillside. The cabin that had once been their family’s home had long since crumbled into fragments of wood. And even the foundations were now nothing more than vague outlines in the sagebrush and scrub oak that covered the hillside. And yet there Mattie was, sitting in the dust at the base of her portal, inside the imaginary walls of the cabin that still surrounded her.
All memories of what she had done appeared to have been purged from her mind. And to Billy’s relief, that also included memories of him.
All she could remember was her family, and especially Frances.
“Mattie, are you ready to go home?” Billy asked, squatting beside the little girl, who was trying to pick up the stones at her feet. Stones that would not budge against her tiny fingers.
“I am home,” Mattie said, with a smile. “I’ve always been home, you silly man.”
“But would you like to go see your family? You know they’re not here. Not any more.”
“I know,” Mattie said. “The bad man sent them away. The bad old cowboy with the knife.”
Richard looked at Billy. He remembered the story, but something in Billy’s reaction didn’t make sense. He thought he saw the young ghost go pale.
“I saw him, you know,” Mattie said. “I think he came back.”
“I saw him too, Princess. But he’s gone now. He’ll never hurt you or Frannie again.”
Mattie seemed to ponder that for a moment. “I’d like to see Frannie,” she finally said, as if whatever had been troubling her was gone.
“Frannie…” Billy said, with tears forming in his eyes. “You called her ‘Frannie.’ I never heard you call her that before.”
“She hates that name. I only call her that to tease her,” Mattie said with a little girl’s laugh that broke Richard’s heart.
“Well, I think that Frances… I think that Frannie is waiting for you. Do you want to go to her?”
“I do!” The little girl said, brightly. “And Mommy and Daddy too!”
“I think they’re all waiting. Give me your hand. I’ll show you where.”
Mattie jumped up instantly, with no hesitation, and took Billy’s hand. Slowly, he walked her toward the passageway, which shimmered across their faces and in their eyes. Richard thought it made them look as if they had tears on their cheeks, but the expression on both their faces was almost beatific.
“Promise me something, Mattie,” Billy said, dropping to his knees in front of the little girl and holding her arms tightly. “Promise me that when you see Frances, you’ll tell her that Billy says… That Billy says I’ll be there soon. Can you do that for me?”
“I promise,” the little girl said, clearly impatient to be on her way.
“Cross your heart?”
“Uh, huh. And hope to die. Can I go now? Frannie is waiting for me.”
“Yes, you can go now, Mattie. Frannie is right through there.” He pointed toward the shimmering circle.
“Will you hold my hand?”
Now there were tears on Billy’s face. “I will, Princess. All the way.”
And he was true to his word. He walked with her across the sand, and as she stepped into the passageway, she turned to him once more. Recognition dawned across her face, but there was now no fear of Billy in her gaze. She looked radiant and happy.
“Bye-bye, Billy,” Mattie said.
“Goodbye, Princess,” Billy replied, releasing the little girl’s hand.
Richard and Billy stayed and stared at the circle for a few seconds, until it snapped shut behind the little girl.
Long minutes later, Billy turned to Richard, and he looked somehow younger. Almost as if he was his old age again. Just a fifteen-year-old boy, with so many cares of the world now fallen away.
“So, Richard, we’re the last? Just us two?”
“You’re sure? Nobody else? There isn’t… There isn’t one more star? Maybe to our south?”
Richard wasn’t sure what the boy was getting at, but he looked once more into his inner vision of the yellow oval of the Hereafter, and squinted his eyes.
“No. Just us two.”
Billy sighed. “That’s good. That’s very good.”
And then, without another word, they began the journey north.
“You sounded very certain of yourself,” Richard said, as they walked through the night.
“Very certain of what?” Billy asked.
“Very certain of what waited for Mattie on the other side. Frances, and her family. Are you really that sure?”
Billy didn’t answer for a moment. “I don’t think it’s a matter of being sure. Faith isn’t about being sure. It’s about… trust, I guess. Trusting that the universe knows more than we do, and that the universe is ultimately benevolent. And will take care of us.”
“That’s a lot of trust, Billy. You still believe that, after all that’s happened?”
“It’s only after trials and pain that you can believe it. And have that belief mean anything at all, that is,” Billy said, cryptically.
Several hours later, they were nearing Billy’s portal.
“So, what will you do, Richard? After I’m gone? You said that you wouldn’t cross over. Have you changed your mind?”
“No. After you’re gone, I’ll go to Dugway, and I’ll wait for Keith. I’ll see you through, but after that, I’ll walk west. I have until sunset to get there.”
“What will you do if he doesn’t come back?” Billy asked. “No new ghosts have arrived since we started helping the stragglers through the portals. If it was the Wanderer who was drawing them back, then Keith won’t return. The stone is out of the stream.”
Richard spoke softly. “I realize that. And if that is the case, then when the three days are past, and I know Keith is safe on the other side, then I’ll come back and step through my passageway. And that will be the end of it.”
He heard himself say those words to Billy, but Richard knew he was lying to the boy. And he suspected that Billy knew it, too.
“What will you do if he does return?” Billy asked.
Richard was dumbfounded and unable to answer the question. Finally, he said, “Protect him as best I can, I suppose. As I’ve always tried to do. Maybe this time, I’ll be able to.”
Billy sounded sad. “Just as I tried to protect Mattie. Richard, that doesn’t work. It can’t.”
Richard could not meet Billy’s eyes. “I know. But I still have to try. Just as you had to. You tried, for more than a century and a half.”
Billy’s silence told Richard that he understood, and that he knew there was no way to save him from his fate, whatever it might be.
At the base of Emigration Canyon, they found Billy’s passageway, exactly where he had left it. It glistened on the hillside above the “This is the Place” monument, like a clear pool in the predawn light.
“Did I tell you, when I was here before, that the hillside was covered with hundreds of dogs?” Billy asked.
“No, you didn’t. Why were they here?”
“I suppose because they were afraid. Or they were waiting for whatever was happening to their masters to pass.”
They looked at the hillside.
“I don’t see any now,” Richard said. “I guess that’s the best proof we’ve had so far that it’s really over.”
Richard and Billy embraced one last time. And, unexpectedly, Billy kissed Richard hard on the lips. It felt strange, like his lips were made of chalk. But it was a nice gesture, none the less, and Richard smiled. He knew it would be his last kiss. Tears were on Billy’s cheeks, but his own were dry.
“Goodbye, Richard,” Billy said, holding both of his friend’s hands. “I hope… that you find what you’re looking for. You’re a good man.”
After a moment, when Richard didn’t reply, Billy turned and stepped through the golden circle. Richard waited until it winked out of existence, and then turned his back on the imposing edifice of the Wasatch and looked out over the devastated city. A half dozen cars were easing slowly along Foothill Drive, just below where he stood. It was some of the first traffic, other than military vehicles, that he’d seen. When they had passed, the silence in the foothills was almost complete. The only thing he could hear were the animals in the zoo. At least some of them had survived, safe in their cages. The cages in which they would spend their remaining days.
He looked up the hillside and sensed the vibrating edge of the Hereafter. He knew how the animals felt.
Richard began the long walk to Dugway.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.