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About the Author
Dennis Latham has published stories in The Palmer Writer, Live Writers, VietNow, Byline, and Deep Outside SFFH. His novels, The Bad Season and Michael In Hell, are currently published by Page Free Press as CD ROM books. A Marine Vietnam veteran, he writes a bi-monthly newsletter for combat veterans, The S-2 Report, dealing with VA benefits and the psychological affect of war. He is working on a third novel, Something Evil. He has been among other things an ironworker, a bar bouncer, and a lead singer in a professional road band. Entering the University of Cincinnati at age forty, he graduated as an English Major in 1992. He currently lives in Guilford, Indiana.
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I avoided Jenna and the patio for a week, smoking outside the front entrance. One Friday about 10:30 I bought a soda and went out on the deck. I miss Jenna teasing me, I thought. But I was afraid of her now.
The Chinese restaurant roof had been fixed, and I imagined it was business as usual. The glass mirror towers to my left reflected the white sun, and the sticky tar roofs beyond the restaurant shimmered in wavy lines. In the dead humid air, the patio deck was a skillet.
I took two drags of a cigarette and decided it was too hot to smoke. As I turned to find an ashtray, the patio door opened. Jenna, wearing white slacks and a green tube top, came out on the deck.
"Hello," I said.
She hesitated, staring, her eyes fixed beyond me before she turned right toward the railing on the opposite side.
The door opened again and Harvey the security guard came out carrying a Coke can.
"Jenna," I yelled and started toward her.
She had kicked off her sandals and climbed the railing, balanced on the balls of her feet. I was almost there when she spread her arms like Steven Babcock and dove off.
Time stopped. I froze in place as a tingle rushed up my stomach and I couldn't breathe. I heard a hollow crunch impact of glass and steel, like a car wreck from a long distance. I turned toward Harvey. His fat round face, usually red, had gone pale white.
"Lord, did she jump?" he said.
I dropped the cigarette. "Yeah."
"We rode the elevator up. She asked me to buy her a Coke."
I moved to the railing and looked down into a parking lot, a hard knot twisting my stomach. Jenna, on her back and splayed out, was embedded in the crushed roof of a red Chevy Blazer. A parking lot attendant stood about thirty feet away talking into a cell phone. A crowd formed behind him.
Standing next to me, Harvey smelled of Old Spice and perspiration. The sun reflected off his security badge. A wheezing noise came from his throat. The sirens began about the same time I saw the gray cloud forming around Jenna.
"Do you see it?"
"I saw her jump," Harvey said.
"Do you see something around Jenna?"
Harvey looked down and then sideways at me, his watery brown eyes open wide. He shook his head.
The cloud formed a ball with an elongated tail, rising.
I grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed. "Leave, Harvey. You're in danger."
Harvey almost fell, but caught himself, fat jiggling beneath his white shirt. His black tie moved up and down as he swallowed.
"It's okay," he said, backing up a few steps. "We're both in shock."
I started to answer, but didn't know what to say. I sensed a shadow blocking the sun behind my back and I got a chill so bad my teeth chattered. Turning, I saw the vague gray outline of a robed figure with long hair and Jenna's features; the brows turned down and in, the lips bent to one side. The sudden shriek and putrid meat stench knocked me to my knees with my hands against my ears. I stared at the concrete deck. Two sweat droplets fell from my chin, and suddenly became pointed streaks as if blown by a strong air blast.
When the shriek stopped and I looked up, two tendrils snaked toward Harvey. I must have looked stone crazy, on my knees staring at him. The tendrils entered his nostrils like wriggling worms. He couldn't see them.
"I'll get help," Harvey said, backing away.
The last tendril slapped like a tail against his chin and disappeared inside.
"Oh, God," I said.
After he left, I glanced back to where my sweat had dripped on the deck. I saw two almost dry, pencil thin, long streaks. It had happened. I wasn't nuts.
I didn't wait for anyone to come out on the deck. I took the elevator to my office, past the secretary who looked at me like she saw a ghost. Outside the big window, two patrol cars with lights flashing parked in front of the building, and within an hour Detective Victor Prentiss came looking for me.
I told him what I had seen because I didn't know what else to say.
"Harvey is next," I said.
Prentiss rubbed his eyes and chin, then stared at the fingernails on his right hand before he looked into my eyes.
"I'm telling the truth."
"Are you Irish, Mark?"
"I'm mostly Italian. Why?"
"Ever heard of a banshee?"
"Yeah, sure. Like the bogeyman or something."
"Well, not quite. In Irish folklore a banshee was a female spirit that would wail when a prominent Irish family member was about to die."
"This thing didn't wail. It shrieked and turned into some damn thing that looked like a snake."
"So you don't think it was a banshee?"
I turned and looked out the window. The world no longer seemed real. I had a passing thought that I was dreaming a detailed nightmare. When I looked back at Prentiss, he instantly made eye contact.
"You don't believe me?"
"There's one way to find out. I'll hang out with you up on the patio and we'll see what happens."
I studied his blue eyes, trying to imagine I could read his mind. I guess homicide detectives learn to hide emotion. He was a blank wall.
"You might be sorry."
Prentiss stood up. "Let me worry about it. I'll see you on Monday."
I had nightmares all weekend. Once, when I jerked awake on Sunday night, the rippling curtains looked like the cloud and I screamed so loud the burly construction worker in the next apartment, Joe Radnick, knocked on my door. I told him I had stubbed my toe on the couch. He looked at me weird but bought the excuse.
Harvey missed work Monday, and Detective Prentiss didn't show up. My boss was on vacation, so I was on my own. Libby, the office secretary, kept asking if was okay. Libby had just turned forty. She had brown eyes, straight brown hair, and thick, crooked glasses. She was married to a skinny guy who also wore thick crooked glasses. They looked like nerd twins. But they were nice, and I knew her concern was genuine. I worried that Harvey might already be dead, but I wasn't about to tell her.
On my way down for a cigarette outside the front entrance, people on the elevator shifted to one side away from me. Rumors had spread fast. After that, I used the stairs and smoked in the alley behind the building. Something else nagged at me, like trying to remember an old song name, but it never quite comes back and drives you nuts.
I went to Jenna's layout that evening. She had a closed casket with her picture on top. Her dyke lover sobbed and tried to climb the casket while the suffering family looked embarrassed. I stayed five minutes and left without signing the guest book.
I kept the bedroom window closed so the curtains wouldn't blow. A bad falling nightmare made me wake up screaming. Joe Radnick next door knocked on my door again, drunk. He had a pink bald head, a flat nose, bloodshot brown eyes, and arms bigger than my thighs. Beer had dribbled down to mix with gravy stains on his white muscle shirt. I heard a television blaring from his open apartment door.
"You're disturbing me, asshole," he said.
I had intended to apologize, but his attitude changed my mind.
"Yeah, I forgot it was WCW Nitro night." I slammed the door in his face.
He beat on the door and called me a faggot a few times before he went back to his apartment. I would have to be careful now because he would ambush me some night or damage my car.
On Tuesday, Harvey sat at his lobby desk facing the entrance. The desk was to the right against a wall, around the corner from the elevators. His usual pink cheeks were chalky pale, accented by dark circles under the eyes. He didn't smile when I said hello and asked how he was doing.
He avoided eye contact. "I didn't feel so good yesterday."
I felt awkward talking to a doomed man. "Hope you feel better," I said, then stepped around the corner and pushed the elevator button. It was a rare, odd moment where no one entered and the lobby was tomb quiet. I heard the wheels on Harvey's chair squeak. The elevator bell dinged and the doors hissed open. Then Harvey poked his head around the corner and I saw an evil grin.
"I'll see you soon," he said.
A chill raced up my back and across my shoulders. I literally jumped into the elevator and stabbed the buttons. Harvey now stood in front of the open doors. His smile seemed to stretch from ear to ear as he raised a finger.
The doors closed. My legs shook and I gasped for breath.
It had talked to me.
Libby was the only person in the office. My face must have looked pale as hell.
"Are you okay, Mark?"
"Yeah. Jenna's funeral was last night. I'm just upset is all."
I sat in my cubicle and stared out the window. I must be going crazy, I thought. A veteran came in wanting information on how to file a VA claim. I helped him in a panic, sweat pouring off me, afraid I might break down at any moment, and worried Harvey might come through the damn door.
Detective Victor Prentiss showed up about ten minutes after the veteran left. I felt a weight lift from my shoulders.
"Sorry about yesterday," he said. "I had to tie up loose ends on an old investigation."
"I need a smoke," I said. "Let's go out back in the alley."
"No, let's go upstairs."
On the patio deck, clouds masked the sun. I sat at the covered table where this all started. I lit a cigarette. Prentiss ambled to the rail to stare at the Chinese restaurant. He grunted, removed his brown suit coat and came back to the table, then moved a chair around to face the patio door. His gun, a small blue .38, protruded from a waist holster on his left side.
"That's a long drop," he said. He stared at the door, looking almost bored.
I told him what happened in the lobby.
Prentiss looked straight into my eyes. "Did anyone else witness what he did?"
He hesitated then scratched his left ear. "Have you ever seen anybody at the VA?"
"Beirut. You went through a major trauma and people died. This cloud or banshee image might be your way of dealing with survivor guilt."
I blew smoke out the side of mouth and shook my head.
"What about Steven Babcock, or Jenna, or Harvey?"
"Maybe coincidence. Nothing has happened to Harvey."
"It will, probably today."
I was wrong.
Prentiss left around 3:30, with Harvey alive at his station. I left at 4:00, out the back entrance. While walking the alley, I kept turning to make sure Harvey wasn't following.
On the way home, I stopped at St. Boniface, where I had attended Catholic grade school. I hadn't been there in years, but I needed answers. I drove around to the ornate brick house behind the church. A young priest wearing a black robe and jeans answered the door. He seemed nervous, but shook my hand when I introduced myself.
"I'm Father Sebastian," he said.
The priest could have just graduated from high school, but I didn't care. "Do you have a few minutes, Father?"
He nodded and I followed him inside.[an error occurred while processing this directive]