June 24, 7:16 pm
Richard stood in the living room with his back to the shimmering passageway. He was looking out the small side window, watching Pil and Carla, as they made their way back to the squad car. A brilliant blue swatch of sky was visible above the house across the street, and small splashes of clouds that looked like scattered doves were drifting slowly through the frame created by the window.
He heard the young man close the door, and he heard him walk back into the living room. And although he did not turn around, Richard knew he was standing right in front of the portal. He was standing on the very spot where Richard had died, just three weeks ago.
“Do they know you’re not Howard Gunderson?” Richard asked.
He didn’t turn to see Justin’s reaction. He had known this was not Howard Gunderson since the trio had arrived at his home.
“No. They don’t know. How long have you known?”
“Since you walked in.”
“Why didn’t you tell them?” Justin asked. “You could have.”
Richard sighed and finally turned to look at the boy. “What would have been the point?”
For all appearances, Howard Gunderson’s face looked every bit like the boy he had first met in the cell. But when he looked deeper into the young man’s eyes, he knew it was Justin Kimball looking back. It was the boy he had betrayed, and the boy who had hated him enough to fire a gun into his head.
Oh, God, that was less than a month ago, Richard realized
“Do you hate me?” Justin asked. It was not the question that Richard had expected.
“No, Justin. I don’t hate you. I never hated you. I’ve spent eighteen years regretting the things I said the day you died. But you need to know I never meant them. I was weak, and I was scared, and I lashed out.” He paused, waiting for the boy to say something. Anything. When he didn’t, Richard finally found the courage to tell the boy what he had wanted to tell him for so long. “Justin, I’ve really only been in love twice in my life, and you were my first. I just didn’t know what to do when you said you were leaving. And I’m sorry for that. So very, very sorry…”
Justin walked slowly into the room, but rather than crossing to Richard, he sank down in the big chair and stared at him, as if he was trying to decide what to say next.
“What happened to Howard?” Richard finally asked. “Do you know?”
“I wish I did,” Justin said, his voice suddenly choked with emotion. “I just know he’s gone. I think he knew when he agreed to let me stay what would happen. But he did it anyway. And… somehow, he changed me…”
“I know,” Richard said. “I felt it too. There was something holy about Howard. When we were in his mind, it felt like he purified us both. It was like he was a lightning rod for everything that I hated about myself. Everything I was ashamed of. He somehow absorbed it all, and dispelled it.”
“Maybe,” Justin said, with tears now on his cheeks. “But if he was a lightning rod, I think the darkness in my soul was too much for even him to ground. It was like he had to embrace it all, take it all from me, and then carry it himself to the other side. When he was gone, I felt so… peaceful. And yet, also lonely. I’ve never felt lonely before. Not like that. I loved Howard, and he was gone. But he took the darkness in my soul with him when he went.”
Richard looked at Justin for a long time. It was almost as if he had suddenly reverted to the innocent, sweet boy he had known when they first met. He had once again become the kid who was so hungry for love and approval. Justin had become as trusting and vulnerable as Richard remembered from that amazing summer they had spent together.
How could I have let myself crush something so fragile and so beautiful? Richard wondered.
“So Howard was already gone when you got to Dugway?”
“He left when we found Tuilla,” Justin said. “Howard took us to Temple Square. He didn’t explain why, but he was insistent, and I didn’t fight him. He only told me there was someone there you wanted me to meet.”
Richard looked at Justin, his face slack. “But how would Howard know about Tuilla? Or where to find her?”
“I don’t think he did. I think you did.”
“But I never told him about her.”
“I know. But remember, Richard, all of our minds had been joined, just minutes before. Somehow, I think Howard knew things you knew—perhaps even just subconsciously. And he just knew that Tuilla was important. And that she could help me.”
Richard was silent, just contemplating how special Howard Gunderson truly had been. And how little any of them had appreciated it.
“Anyway, Tuilla was there, like she was waiting for us, and as soon as he saw her, Howard was gone. It was like he handed me over to her. And it broke me. If it hadn’t been for that old woman, I think I would have gone mad. I don’t know how she reached me, but she did.”
“Did she use the Fourth Gift?”
“No, it wasn’t like that. Or if it was, it was very subtle. Mostly, she just stayed with me. That first hour was very dark.”
“Then she led you to Dugway.”
“No. She didn’t know where Drouillard was. She couldn’t lead me. I led her. I already knew where you were. But what really led me was the tire iron. Somehow, I knew where it was. I knew from the minute that I merged with Howard. It had meant safety for him, but pain and terror for me. And it called out to me… like…”
“Like a tugging in your head,” Richard said.
Howard looked at him strangely. “Yes. That’s it exactly.”
I suppose that’s not so strange, Richard thought. If I could bond that way with Keith, and Billy could bond that way with Mattie, perhaps Howard had bonded that way with that piece of bent iron. It was strange and wondrous, but the world was full of strange and wondrous things.
Richard suddenly smiled.
“You realize what this means, don’t you? We’re the last two ghosts in the Hereafter. Maybe the last two in the world.”
“No, Richard. It’s just you. I’m no longer a ghost. I’m now Howard Gunderson. A soul in a body, just like everyone else. If I was still a ghost, I would have been pulled from Howard’s body when the passageways opened.”
Richard nodded, sadly. “Deary told me that it was impossible for a body to exist without a soul. When Howard left, that locked you into his body. So I guess you’re right. You’re no longer a ghost.”
“Which makes you the last one.”
“I suppose so.”
Howard looked at the wall behind him. He couldn’t see it, but he knew Richard’s passageway was there. “But you’re not going to step through, are you? Despite what you told Pil.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You lied to him.”
“I did. And to Billy too.”
Justin turned to look at him, but Richard could not bear to meet his gaze. He turned back again, and leaned against the window frame. His forehead made no mark on the smooth glass.
“Why, Richard? Why won’t you cross over? What is there for you here?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Richard said. Then he paused, and decided to tell Justin the truth.
“Justin, I’ve lost everything. But there are two things I still have. The first I think you’ll understand. Even if I never see Keith again, just knowing that we exist in the same world is a kind of comfort.”
“Okay. Yes, I understand that. What is the other thing you have?”
“That, I don’t understand.”
Richard closed his eyes, blocking out the tiny white clouds in the infinite blue sky. “Justin, I’ve lost so much. I’ve lost my life, the people I love, my ability to interact with the world, and my hope and faith that there is something meaningful waiting for me. But the one thing I still have is my sense of myself. And my memories.”
“Richard, you can take all that with you!” Justin was now sounding desperate. As if he had to convince Richard to step through the portal as a way to save his soul.
“Can I? What I remember of the Void beyond that passageway isn’t the terror of losing all those things that I once had. It was the terror of losing me—my sense of self. I lost all the things of the living world when I died, and that was agonizing. But the Void was like a vat of acid, eating away at whatever essence it is that made me a person. A thing separate from the great universal soup of creation. What I remember of the Void was that I felt my mind slipping away. It wasn’t even a sense that I was dissolving into the great ocean of existence. It was more like I was a campfire in the rain, that was slowly dying down and was about to snuff out, leaving nothing of itself behind to show it ever existed. Justin, it was terrifying. And now, when I think of it, it’s not something I’m willing to face again. It’s not the end I want for… well, for a life that once felt like a miracle.”
The silence in the room grew long, and finally Richard heard Justin let out a slow sigh.
“I don’t have any words of comfort for you, Richard,” Justin said. He moved close, almost as if he wanted to ease Richard’s loneliness by putting his arms around him. But they both knew the touch of an arm of stone, rather than a living arm of flesh, would only torture Richard further.
“The Buddhists teach that we only fear loss because of attachment,” Justin said, softly. “Perhaps the Void is terrifying to you, because it represents losing the one thing you have left to cling to, and that is your suffering. But maybe there is a place beyond that pain. Maybe, once you lose those last bits, even yourself, all that remains is peace.”
Richard smiled to himself, but did not turn to face the boy behind him. “Justin Kimball, listen to you. You’ve become a philosopher.”
He heard the boy chuckle.
“I guess I was something more than a hot piece of ass after all, huh?”
Richard closed his eyes. “You were always much, much more.”
“Richard, I don’t know what’s on the other side. But isn’t it worth finding out? Don’t you have any curiosity? Any sense of adventure? You know what’s here. Why not find out what else may be out there? You said yourself that there is nothing meaningful in your future if you stay here.”
Richard was silent. The clouds outside had thickened. One was passing overhead that was shaped like a ship, or maybe a giant white dolphin, diving into the sun. As he watched, it lost its form and shape. But he kept watching as it broke up in the morning breeze.
Justin spoke behind him, just inches from his ear.
“Please, Richard. You’ll be all alone here. Forever. I can’t bear thinking of that life for you.”
“Yes, I’ll be alone. In a way I’ve never known. Maybe that’s the adventure that’s my destiny.”
Finally, Justin asked the question that he had clearly wanted to ask from the beginning. There was genuine fear in his voice when he spoke.
“Richard, will you possess again?”
“No,” Richard said, with perhaps more vehemence in his voice than he had intended. “I won’t. Ever. I can promise you that. I know it would be… wrong. I’m not sure that I could, even if I wanted to.”
Justin sighed. “So that’s it. You’ll just stay here, alone. You’ll just stay and cling to your suffering?”
“That sounds like martyrdom, Richard. That’s a rather arrogant thing for you to do.”
Richard smiled. “Pil and Michelle always said I was an arrogant bastard.”
“What if the window closes? What if you want out in a week or a month or a year or a century, but the passageway is gone?”
“I hope it does close. Its very existence is like an ache to my soul.”
“Richard, I don’t know if I can bear knowing that you’re locked here, alone, and forever.”
The boy’s gentle words touched him.
“You’ll bear it. And you’ll forget. You’re young, and you have a long life to live. You’ve moved into the world of the living, Justin, and you and I can never share our worlds again. Not after today.”
Richard felt a hand on his shoulder. It was a shaking hand, and despite his desire to not look again upon Justin’s face, or Howard’s face, he allowed the relentless hand of the living to turn him around. And there was a sad resignation in the boy’s eyes.
“Richard, I’ll stay with you. Keep you honest, if you’d like. Make sure you’re never tempted to possess again. Make sure you keep your word. Maybe I can… ease your loneliness a little.”
Richard realized what Justin was offering him. Companionship. Friendship. Maybe even love. It was the boy who had killed him, feeling obliged to pay penance to the man he murdered for the rest of his life. The old Richard Pratt had dreamed of a beautiful boy like this, looking into his eyes and offering himself. The old Richard would have accepted.
Richard put up a hand and touched Justin’s cold, hard cheek. There was a tear there, and it felt like a bead of crystal, suspended on the cheek of a marble statue. A beautiful and kind statue.
“No, my love. You can’t do that. If I destroyed one more life, it would be more than I could stand. You need to go to Las Vegas. Start a new life. You don’t need some old ghost haunting you forever, any more than Keith does. With any luck, after you walk out of here, you’ll never again see another ghost.”
Justin appeared relieved, but very sad.
There was silence between them for a time. Then Justin said, “Richard, I loved you. I just wasn’t ready. And I’m sorry.”
“I know. And I’m sorry, too. It feels like what I did to you that day is what started everything. I’ll have to live with that. You need to know that I loved you, too. I still do. And I always will.”
“Do you remember what you told me about the clover?” Justin asked. “About grabbing one last handful of clover and pulling it with you into the grave?”
Richard smiled. “I don’t remember telling you that. I always said that to Keith. I guess it’s just a corny line I use on the men I care about.”
“It’s not corny at all. I’ve thought about it ever since.”
Richard smiled. “I’m glad.”
“Do you think I grabbed enough clover?” Justin asked. “I had so much I wanted to do.”
“I think only you know that. But I’ll tell you this. You were some of the clover that I grabbed.”
“I think I’m just realizing, Richard, that you were some of mine too.”
Justin finally dropped his hand from Richard’s shoulder, and Richard let his own hand fall from Justin’s cheek. With a sad smile, Justin turned and walked toward the door.
“You’ll tell them I stepped through?” Richard asked.
Richard crossed quickly to Justin. “Let’s pretend we’re just old friends, saying goodbye at a bus station.” He held out his hand. “Have a good trip, my friend.”
Justin turned and looked at the outstretched hand, and smiled. “You too… my friend.” He reached out to shake Richard’s hand, being careful not to squeeze it too hard. Richard knew Justin felt nothing, but to him, he could almost swear there was a warmth there. Even a tingle in his hand.
Both men allowed their hands to drop to their sides. Then Justin turned and left the house.
Richard wrapped his arms around himself.
I’ll never feel a touch like that again. Ever. I’ll have to find some way to make peace with that.
He watched through the curtains as Justin—forever now Howard Gunderson—got into the car. The three friends talked for a few minutes there, parked in front of the house, and then the car slowly drove away, and the street outside was silent.
Richard turned around. The passageway was shimmering behind him. He thought again about stepping through, but knew he wouldn’t. And as he made that decision, the golden circle grew bright for just a moment, and then disappeared.
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.