June 24, 6:46 pm
Nothing in living memory compared to the devastation that was visited on Salt Lake City, during those thirty-six hours in June. No hurricane, flood, or earthquake in the country had killed so many, and certainly, no disaster had acted so quickly, and none had resulted in the kind of psychological and spiritual terror that gripped the country and the world during those brief days. In scale, the Salt Lake Apocalypse, as it was soon to be called, only compared with the worst acts of genocide and slaughter that had been seen around the globe. And none of those terrors had been so concentrated in time and place.
The effort to heal the city, and the country, would take months and years. And for the survivors, those wounds would never truly heal.
Nevertheless, by the time a week had passed, those efforts had at least begun. And slowly, like a forest fire that had seen the flames pass to leave only embers behind, the survivors crawled out of their dens and shelters, looking at the devastation with clouded, lost expressions that would take months and years to fade.
On the morning of June 23, one week after the destruction of the Wanderer, the borders to the city were officially reopened, and refugees that had escaped began to stream homeward. They were in search of not only their own homes and the belongings they had left behind, but their very lives, and the lives of the people that they loved. All too often those searches would end in tears and mourning. Often, they would end in uncertainty. But in rare cases, survivors found each other and fell together with clinging desperation and relief. Each of those moments became a tiny piece of the healing that would bring the city back to life.
Richard and Keith were not destined to be one of those surprise reunions.
After Keith failed to appear in Dugway on that third day, Richard returned to his home. In the days that followed, he sat there alone, empty of feeling, empty of hope. He rarely ventured beyond the door of the home he and his lover had shared, and when he did, the sunlight judged him and shamed him, and sent him scurrying back inside the house like a cockroach.
Only once in those days had anyone entered his home.
A team of FEMA workers came by two days after he returned from his fruitless trip to Dugway. Richard watched as they quickly inspected the house, and when they left, they used red spray paint to mark some rough letters and the number zero on the door. Based on what Richard could see of the activity in the neighborhood, he knew what those symbols meant.
This house is empty. No bodies inside.
In a sense, Richard found the designation on his home to be a comfort. And more than once he glanced at the golden circle that still glowed on the wall of the living room, and considered stepping through it, just so that the house could be as empty as the relief workers believed it to be.
But even with Keith gone, he could not bring himself to make that journey. And every day, he prayed that the beckoning portal would wink out and leave him in peace.
The quiet of his solitary pain was finally interrupted on the evening of June 24. The neighborhood was once again showing signs of life, so it did not surprise him when the SLPD squad car pulled up outside. He was surprised, however, when he saw who got out of it.
Carla Grayson walked into the house with her gun drawn and pointed toward the ceiling, like some gumshoe in a TV drama. Slowly and carefully, she explored the house, Richard tagging unseen behind her. The woman looked drawn and tired, but other than some mostly healed scratches on her face, she looked fine. It wasn’t until she spoke that Richard realized that her broken jaw was still wired shut.
“It’s all clear!” she yelled through her clenched teeth, holstering her weapon.
Pil Kilani and Howard Gunderson got out of the back of the car, and walked quickly toward the house.
Richard felt a momentary panic at seeing the two mediums, knowing that they could see him while Carla could not. He actually felt like scurrying away, as if he really was that frightened cockroach, afraid of the light. But before he could dart past them, Pil and Howard entered the house, and he froze.
“Hello, Richard,” Pil said, simply, his face unreadable. “I’m tempted to ask how you’ve been.”
Howard smiled slightly, but it was a sad smile. And Carla did not look in the least surprised to find out that the house was not empty after all. It was as if they had all three expected him to be here, and would have been more surprised if the house truly had been empty.
“How are you here?” Richard stammered.
“Can we sit?” Pil asked, gesturing toward the living room. “It’s been a long drive. And that car brings back bad memories.”
Without replying, all three of them walked past Richard into the living room. Howard and Pil sat on the couch, and Carla took the overstuffed chair. They all walked past Richard’s passageway without giving it a second glance.
The way out is only for me, Richard thought. Nobody can see them but the dead.
“I don’t understand,” Richard said, standing in front of the trio. “Why are you here?”
“Are you really that surprised to see us?” Pil asked. And when Richard didn’t reply, he continued. “It took some convincing to get Carla to bring us back here. But now that the roads have reopened, and martial law has been lifted, we thought it was safe.”
“Escort you back from where?” Richard asked.
“Boise,” Howard said. “Idaho.”
“What? Boise? How did you end up in Boise?”
“It’s a long story, Richard,” Pil began. “But first you need to know that Keith is alive.”
His knees failed him, and Richard fell to the carpet in front of the two men. A feeling of both pain and joy swept through him, and he began to shake. “Keith? He’s alive? How? I saw him shot!”
“He was shot, but it didn’t kill him. It almost did, but he survived.”
“How is that possible?” Richard stammered.
Howard took up the story. “Richard, when you disappeared, Carla and I got to Keith right away. We all thought he was dead. We thought he had to be.”
“I did too,” Pil said, his voice heavy with guilt. “I was sure we had watched him die. But I guess he had just lost consciousness.”
“His heartbeat was weak, and he’d already lost a lot of blood,” Carla said, through her wired jaw. She was trying to focus on where she thought Richard must be, and even though she couldn’t hear anything Richard said, she knew it was her job to tell this part of the story. “Pil had collapsed, because he thought Keith was gone. He also had a bullet wound in the shoulder, and I think that was finally registering on him. But when Howard and I got to Keith, I found a pulse. Howard stayed with him. He took his shirt off and used it to hold back the bleeding, which was horrific. While he did that, I rushed to the squad car for the first aid kit. When I got back, Keith’s pulse was barely detectable, but it was still there. And Howard had stopped the worst of the bleeding. I packed the wound with gauze, and together, Pil carried him out of there.”
Richard was trembling and staring at Carla. Waves of emotion were cascading through him as he heard each detail. The vision of Keith being carried through the desert in Pil’s arms like a baby—bandages on not only his burned arms, but his belly as well—was a picture he couldn’t push from his mind.
“We got him in the squad car, and we rushed him into Dugway,” Pil continued. “Because the guard post was destroyed, there was nobody there to stop us. It was only two miles to town, and we were there in something like four or five minutes.”
“When we drove into the town, it was weird,” Howard said. “It was like nothing had happened in Dugway. Everybody was hiding out, but there was a sign for a hospital, and we rushed him right there. There were no soldiers, and nobody stopped us.”
“It probably helped that we were in a police car, and I had the sirens blasting,” Carla added.
“Anyway,” Pil continued, “we were relieved that not only were there doctors there, but a good number of the staff had isolated themselves in the hospital. We had a whole surgical team—several doctors and a bunch of nurses. They went to work on Keith right away. I think they were grateful that they had someone they could actually help.”
“I can’t believe he survived,” Richard said, still trembling.
“Well, it was touch and go for that first hour,” Pil said, his voice heavy with the memory. “His heart stopped. Twice. But by midnight they had him stabilized, and at dawn they put him on a medivac helicopter to Boise.”
“Why Boise?” Richard asked.
“There were no hospitals with major trauma centers closer that could respond, since all the hospitals in Salt Lake had been shut down, and wounded survivors were still pouring out of the city. And I think the fact that we were in Dugway was some kind of huge security breach. They wanted us out of there. Especially after we told them that the guards at the perimeter were dead too.”
“And besides,” Carla threw in, “by that point, word was coming in from the city that the violence had stopped. And they knew things at the hospital were going to get crazy.”
“I went with Keith in the medivac helicopter,” Pil said. “But Carla drove herself and Howard up to meet us there.”
“We took a wide berth around Salt Lake City,” she said, and Richard thought he saw a shiver roll through her shoulders.
Finally, the fact of Keith’s survival was starting to feel real to Richard, and not like just another cruel trick the Hereafter was playing on him. He wanted to thank these three, who were now clearly the closest of friends. He wanted to tell them how grateful he was that they had worked together to save the life of the man that he loved. He wanted to say so many things, but he felt small and inadequate and insignificant. All he could do was stare at them, until finally he managed.
“Thank you, Pil. Thank you… Howard. And please tell Carla that I’m grateful to her too.”
Pil slowly leaned forward, and brought his face to within a foot of Richard, where he knelt on the carpet at the big man’s feet.
“I’m afraid it’s not all good news, Richard,” Pil said. And his eyes were wet.
Oh god, what else? Richard thought.
“The surgery saved Keith’s life,” Pil continued. “But I have bad news too, and you need to brace yourself.”
Richard just stared, terrified of what Pil would say next.
“Keith is alive. But he’s still in a coma. And the worse news is that we don’t believe he’ll ever walk again. The bullet that Mattie fired completely severed his spine on the way out. The doctors say it’s irreparable.”
Richard was beyond weeping. He looked over Pil’s shoulder at the portal on the wall, which was roiling with a new urgency. He wondered if throwing himself into it would end this suffering. But he still couldn’t do it. And he knew it was because no matter what he did, it would not ease Keith’s suffering. If he came out of the coma, he would have a long and difficult life ahead. And Richard felt responsible for all of it.
“I’m sorry, Richard,” Howard said, and he too looked as if he might weep. It was clear that these three had been through so much together since the day that the Wanderer had been defeated. But where the loss had broken Richard, these three had faced it and triumphed. It made Richard feel all the more pathetic.
“Pil,” he finally managed. “I’m so grateful that you’re here. But I have to ask. Why did you come back?”
Pil stared at him hard, and his gaze was unforgiving.
“I came back for you, Richard.”
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I gave a shit what happened to you. I didn’t, and I don’t. But I need to know a few things. And I need to say a few things to you.”
“How did you know I’d be here?”
“I didn’t. But Howard told me he thought you might be. And he knows more about this… stuff than I do.”
“Ask me anything,” Richard said. He felt as if the least he could do would be to submit to the big man’s questions.
“First, are the angels all gone? We know the violence has stopped. But have they all gone?”
Richard sighed. “Yes. Every one. When Drouillard died, it opened a kind of doorway. A way out of the Hereafter. All the ghosts are gone. The angels, and the innocents, both. Billy and I helped the last of them, just to make sure. And now he’s gone too. They’re all gone. And I’m alone.”
Howard looked especially confused and more than a little sad. “Why are you still here, Richard?” he asked. “If they all went on their way, why are you still here?”
“My way out is there.” Richard gestured to the shimmering circle on the wall behind them. They both looked back. “It’s some kind of portal. All I have to do is step through it. That’s the way out. For us. For the dead.”
“I don’t see anything,” Howard said.
“No. You wouldn’t. You’re alive. The portals are only for the dead.”
“And where does it lead?”
“I don’t know. Away. Billy thought it led into the arms of God. The real God. That’s what he believed, at least.”
“But you haven’t taken it. Why?” Pil asked.
Richard took a deep breath. “I wish I knew. I thought Keith was dead. But I hoped that he’d come back. So I went to Dugway and waited. Ghosts always return—when they do, at any rate—three days after they died. So I waited for Keith on the third night, hoping he’d appear. But he didn’t. Billy told me he wouldn’t. He was right, although not for the reason he thought.”
“What did you see in the desert?” Howard asked.
“Nothing but Sutton Deary’s body, and the body of the dead soldier. Both had been ravaged pretty badly by coyotes, but Deary’s was the worst. There really wasn’t much left of it but bones and pieces of flesh, scattered in the crumbled stone. But there was no Keith. I could see the dark stain of his blood, and the tracks showed that you’d carried him away. But I assumed that only meant you’d hauled his body out of the wash. I never dreamed it meant he was alive. I guess… I couldn’t allow myself that hope, if I wanted to stay sane.”
“Didn’t you see any remnants of the dressings or wrappings from the bandages?” Howard asked.
“No. The wind must have carried all that away. I saw nothing but the blood. But I thought it was just as well. If Keith’s dead body had been there… Well, I really don’t know if my mind could have survived the hours of waiting in the darkness with his corpse to see if he came back. I was so grateful that you’d taken his body away, because I hoped that meant he would get a proper burial.”
“So many in this town haven’t,” Pil said, darkly. “I suppose you’ve heard that they’re burning most of the bodies out at Kennecott.”
“No,” Richard said, swallowing hard. “I didn’t know that.”
Silence fell between them for a moment, and Richard knew Pil was thinking of his wife, who was among the uncounted dead of this city.
“So what did you do,” Howard finally asked. “After Keith didn’t come back, I mean?”
“When Keith didn’t arrive, I left the site thinking that it was all over. And to be honest, I was grateful. I love Keith, and I wanted more than anything in the world to see him again. But I also didn’t know if my heart could bear it if he came back to the Hereafter. When he didn’t arrive, I was actually grateful. At least I could tell myself that, wherever he was, he was at peace.”
“I understand,” said Pil. And Richard truly believed that he did.
“But you still haven’t answered my question,” Richard said, summoning the last reserves of his strength. “Why are you here? Why did you come back?”
Howard leaned back in his chair. It was clear that this was something the three of them had talked about extensively, and that it was important that Pil be the one to say what needed to be said next.
“I came back, Richard,” Pil said, “because I’m still angry. I’m angry at Drouillard for what he did, and I’m angry at the universe. But I’m also angry at you. I know at this point that I shouldn’t be, and that maybe I should even be grateful for what you did. But I can’t seem to get past it. I think I needed to see if you were still here, because I wanted some kind of closure with you.”
“Pil, I…” Richard began.
“Shut up Richard. Just let me say this.” Pil took a deep breath, then continued. “I don’t even have Michelle’s body. I have no idea what happened to her, and I probably never will. When I saw the news reports about the mass cremations at Kennecott, I imagined she would be there. But the plain fact is that I’ll never know.”
“Pil, I wish I could change that…”
“I know you do. But you can’t. Nobody can. And although I know this whole thing isn’t your fault, to me your face will always be the face I think of when I see Michelle’s burning body in that car. Your soul was in my body when I was holding Keith, when I thought he was dead. You are the face of too much pain and trauma for me, Richard. And I want to make sure that after today, I never see you again.”
Richard felt numb. And it was because he could completely understand why Pil felt as he did. The Hereafter and Drouillard and Richard Pratt had taken more from this man than anyone had a right to ask.
“And there is one last thing I need you to know,” Pil said. Richard looked up and did his best to hold the man’s gaze.
“Richard, I need you to know that Keith is never coming back to this valley. And not only that, for his own sanity, he needs to know that you’re gone. That you and all the ghosts have crossed over. I’m going to do my best to create a life for him that is good. Or as good as it can be, considering all he’s been through. But for him to heal, he needs to know you’re gone. He needs to live a life without you haunting him.”
“Haunting him,” Richard thought. Billy had used those words. “When has that ever turned out well for the one being haunted?” Billy had asked.
Richard wanted to be angry at Pil. He even had a brief flash of desire to possess him once again, and make him take him to Keith, or make him bring Keith home. But all those emotions were truly only flashes—remnants of the man Richard Pratt used to be. They were the emotions of the weak and small person he could no longer afford to indulge. In the end, he knew Pil was right. The best way he could take care of Keith now was to let him go. And to never see him again.
I thought he was dead once, and I knew I would one day have to accept that, he thought. It will be so much harder to let him go, now that I know he’s still alive. But I must…
In the end, Richard simply nodded.
Pil looked at him with a combination of respect and wariness. “So we’re agreed? When I return to Keith, he needs to know that you’ve crossed over.”
Richard looked at the passageway, shimmering nearby.
“Can I tell him that?” Pil asked, impatience in his voice.
Richard smiled. “Yes, tell him that. And tell him that there is a glorious city of the dead on the other side, where I’ll be waiting. Tell him not to forget my name. Will you tell him that?”
“I will,” Pil said, the relief plain in his voice.
Pil stood up and turned toward Carla. “He’s agreed,” he said to the woman, who looked relieved as well. “I think we can go.” He turned back to Richard, as if he was waiting for the ghost to stand and take his hand. Richard even saw his arm twitch, as if it took the big man a moment to remember that there could be no touching between the living and the dead. Slowly, Richard got to his feet and stood in front of Pil, feeling very small, and very tired.
“Thank you, Richard,” Pil said. “Carla is taking us back to Keith. And then we’re never coming back to this valley.”
“Will you take care of him for me?” Richard asked.
“I will. Forever. I know… that we both love him very much. I’ll take care of him, for both of us.”
Before they left, there was one more thing Richard needed to know. He turned to Howard.
“Howard, what will you do now? I’m sure it’s not safe for you here. You’re still wanted for my murder. And even with all the death that has happened since, I can’t believe that they’ll forget that.”
Howard smiled, and looked shy, as if his own problems meant little in the grand scheme of what had happened to them all. “I guess it’s Las Vegas,” he said, glancing at Carla. “Carla thinks I can get lost there. And she thinks she can help me get a new identity.”
Grayson cleared her throat and spoke through her wired jaw. She was looking where she thought Richard was standing, but she was at least a foot off the mark.
“I was on the Force there before my husband and I moved to Salt Lake City. I still have… contacts. I think Howard will be fine.” She took his hand. “He means very much to me.”
Richard could see the kind and motherly way she looked at Howard. She had always spoken of him fondly, even when she thought he was a murderer. Now she must feel like he was the son she’d never had. What they had been through together would bind them forever.
Pil was already walking toward the front door when Richard spoke up one more time.
“Pil, can you do me one last favor?” The man turned, his look wary. “There is one thing I’d like you to take to Keith. It’s on the bedside table upstairs. I can’t pick it up, but you can.”
Without asking what it was, Pil went up the stairs, and returned just seconds later with Keith’s journal in his hand. Standing in the door, he said, “With time, I hope we can send someone back here to get whatever else Keith might need.”
Richard smiled, and it felt like the first genuine smile that had crossed his face in a very long time. “I think that’s all he’ll need, for now,” he said. “But don’t worry. If you come back, I won’t be here.”
Pil once again started to leave, but Howard put a hand on his arm.
“Pil, can you and Carla wait for me in the car? I’d like to talk to Richard alone for a few minutes, if that’s okay.”
Pil glanced back and forth between Howard and Richard for an instant. “It’s fine. Just make sure he steps through that portal. That’s all I ask.”
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.