In Briscoe County
by Dennis Latham
"Mr. Jennings, there are brains on the passenger seat and window of your Lincoln," Detective William Roberts repeated again, after six hours under bright lights in what Sam Jennings had been told was a Kansas State Police interrogation room.
Sam massaged his right eyebrow. Thirty-five years ago, at age twenty, he had ended a pro boxing career with a nose punched flat and scar tissue around both eyes. The right eyebrow always tingled under stress.
"Where's the body, Mr. Jennings?"
"I don't know. I don't even remember how I got here."
Detective Roberts was a few years younger than Sam, around fifty, but his bony face, the pale skin stretched tight, and the purple bags under his bloodshot brown eyes made him look older.
He's relentless, Sam thought, but it wouldn't matter.
"Tell me about Jill and this Briscoe County again."
"My story won't change."
Roberts flipped on the cassette recorder.
"Tell me about it. I've got plenty of time."
The comfortable routine of their long marriage truly ended with Jill's stomach cramps. She complained for a week before Sam persuaded her to see the doctor.
"Go to the hospital," the doctor said. "And don't expect to come home for awhile."
They struggled through the crying denial and rage phases after the initial stomach cancer diagnosis. She didn't smoke or drink. Sam couldn't remember her ever being sick, except when she had two miscarriages years before. She had always wanted children. Now, she had a colostomy bag.
"I can deal with it," Jill told Sam, after the chemo failed and the doctor's report confirmed the cancer had spread to her liver.
They gave her a few months. A little longer if she fought hard.
She had lapsed into the final acceptance stage, and Sam had no choice but to follow. She was taking oral morphine by then, and her failing liver caused her skin to go orange. Her stomach began to bloat, while her legs and upper body shriveled. She slept a lot, in a recliner chair facing the television with the sound muted. When she did speak, her voice was a monotone. It was horrible watching her being eaten from the inside out.
One afternoon, after waking from a nap on the couch, Sam sat up yawning and stared at her profile in the recliner. She opened her eyes and turned her head toward him.
"Sam, I want to take a trip back home."
He assumed she meant to see her mother in the nursing home. "Are you up to driving to Chicago?"
"I'm from Kansas. We moved to Chicago when I was fifteen."
Sam was stunned. "After thirty years, you tell me you're from Kansas?"
"There's a lot I haven't told you."
Her answer hit like a punch in the stomach. She stared with those half-closed, almost alien yellow-brown eyes, and her hair was a dyed brown tangle, wild with snags and curls like some modern Medusa. It sent a chill up his spine.
"I want to go home."
"Fine. I'll take you."
They left Indianapolis two days later, spent the night in St. Louis, the next night in Kansas City, and started across six hundred flat Kansas miles. Jill hadn't said much in her morphine stupor. They ate from drive-up windows and stopped for gas after dark. She didn't want anyone to see her.
About two hours out of Topeka on Interstate 70, Sam was bored crazy looking at rippling wheat fields. He imagined distant houses as ships lumbering against bizarre yellow waves.
Jill tapped him on the shoulder. "Where are we?"
"In tornado country. How far do we have to go?"
"The pain is bad today. I don't think I have much time."
Not knowing what to say, he lit a cigarette. She didn't complain like she had when he smoked in the house. Cruel irony, Sam thought. He smoked his entire life and she had the cancer.
"Where are we going?"
"Near a place called Tribune to see my sister's grave."
Sam almost gagged on smoke. He knew her father and two brothers were dead, but she had never mentioned a sister.
"I had a twin. She died when we were fourteen. She fell off the barn loft and got tangled in some hanging rope."
"Is there anything else you want to tell me? Like maybe you used to be a man or something?"
She stared without changing expression, brown eyes huge against yellow whites and the sharp orange angles of her shrunken cheeks. He suddenly felt cruel and guilty.
"I'm sorry. So much has happened."
Jill winced and closed her eyes for a moment. Her wild brown hair lay matted to her forehead despite the air conditioning. She breathed deep, raspy.
"Her name was Barbara."
"I'll bet her death hurt you."
"That's why we moved to Chicago. It was hard on the family."
"We have to turn south. I'll tell you when."
"Pretty far yet."
She fell asleep again, and Sam remembered the oddities of her family relationship he had ignored. She had rarely spoken to her brothers. The few times he went on those strange visits to the Chicago nursing home, Rose, her mother, wouldn't look at her directly. There were no hugs or kind words. The visits were under thirty minutes, when Jill could have stayed all day.
Sam truly believed Jill had never been a happy person. He could count the times on one hand she had laughed out loud. He had always thought it was because she couldn't have children. They both had good jobs with the Post Office, and he retired the year before the cancer forced her medical retirement. Money wasn't an issue. He now thought maybe it had been her sister's death eating at her insides.
Jill wheezed, her head rolling gently against her chest. Her eyes moved beneath the closed lids. Dreaming, Sam thought, and hoped it wasn't bad because reality was a nightmare.
He had wanted her the first moment they met when they were both age twenty-one. She had transferred to the Indianapolis postal annex, wanting to start a new life outside Chicago. He had worked there for a year, after retiring from boxing. He was surprised when she agreed to go out with him because she could have had any man, and his flat nose and scarred eyebrows made him look like a thug.
"I need protection," she told him, during their first date.
"From what? Is somebody at work bothering you?"
She half-smiled. "No. I need protection from demons."
"Bring'em on. I'll protect you."
"I don't know when they'll come."
"I'll be there when you need me."
The demons came in the form of cancer, and he couldn't protect her.
Lost in thought, Sam suddenly noticed how the wheat field to his right and the road looked like a black and white photograph. The sky had become an endless, smooth gray mat, creating an illusion of being maybe fifty feet above the car.
It was ten-thirty in the morning. He was sure the sun had been bright as hell a few minutes ago, but now it looked like the last few minutes before night when objects lose color. He saw no traffic, in front or behind, and couldn't see the opposite side of the freeway. He saw wheat, miles of it on either side.
"When in the hell did all this happen?" he said.
Jill shifted position and mumbled in her sleep. Sam noticed a white lump dead center in the speed lane ahead. When he saw what he thought it was, he pulled off on the right road shoulder a few hundred feet past it. Slick sweat coated his forehead and arms.
Jill opened her eyes and slowly looked around.
"I don't know."
"How long was I sleeping?"
Sam looked in the left outside mirror, but couldn't see the thing from that angle. "Not long."
"Is it going to rain?"
"I don't know."
"Why did you pull over?"
He shot a glance at her. "I saw something in the road."
"You're pale. Do you feel all right?"
Sam opened the glove compartment and pushed the trunk release.
"I'm going to see what it is."
Her orange face now appeared to be almost a dark brown in the bizarre weather. The brown in her eyes was black, the yellow whites gone gray.
"You're taking the gun?"
"What do you think it is?"
"Never mind. Stay in the car. It's too hot."
He knew she lacked the strength to follow him. She nodded and he stepped out into an oven. The silence was creepy: not a car, bird, or breeze. Sam always carried a .357 magnum on road trips, legal or not.
He hefted the stainless steel revolver from his bag and closed the trunk. It had a six-inch barrel and held six magnum bullets, enough power to damn near put down an elephant.
Looking both ways from habit, he crossed into the speed lane and approached the object. His stomach dropped. He had been right. It was a human torso, lacking arms, legs, and a head. The round butt faced the sky. He couldn't tell if it was a man or woman.
He thought maybe a truck hit it, but saw no blood smear on the road or around the body. The hair on his arms stood when he realized the limbs and head had been pulled off. Pale, frayed skin flaps splayed out from the stumps.
Sam looked around in panic, and that's when he saw the back of a sign on a metal pole across the road. He had missed seeing it while driving past the corpse. Several rusty jagged punctures were on the back. He thought of bullet holes, but they were long and narrow, like the sign had been attacked with a hatchet.
When he went around to the front, he saw three rusted words, carved as if by twitching fingernails, on the green background: URN BRISCOE COUNTY.
He thought a letter was missing from the URN, but then realized it stood for YOU ARE IN.
A sudden loud scrape, like steel on concrete came from behind him. When Sam turned, the corpse had vanished. A wide trail of crushed wheat lead away from the road, and deep slashes marred the asphalt. A loud, wet belch came from the field, followed by a dumpster stench.
He ran toward the car, gasping, trying to keep the gun elevated, but his right hand trembled so bad the gun stayed down.
He looked back after reaching the car. Off in the distance, he saw maybe twenty or thirty animals hopping away through the wheat. He thought they had two legs but couldn't be sure. A huge, pointed black snout suddenly rose above the field and dipped before tilting back up, chewing.
His thumb slipped off the door handle twice before he managed to scramble inside the car. Putting the gun between his legs and the car in gear, he punched the accelerator, tires squealing.
Jill stared with those half-open eyes while slumped against the passenger door. She licked her dry lips and spoke in a monotone.
"What was it?"
The road was a gray line to the horizon. The air conditioner roared, but he was sweat soaked and breathing hard.
"A dead dog."
"You never did lie very well."
"I think my last soda had drugs or something in it."
She grimaced, closing her eyes.
"Is it bad, Jill?"
She nodded, eyes still closed. "My lower back."
"I wish I could help." He reached for the cigarettes on the dash and changed his mind. When he glanced at Jill, her eyes were wide open and alert.
"Where are we?"
His voice came out shrill. "I don't know. Uh, Briscoe County."
Jill sat straight up. The pain had to be terrible, but she found some hidden strength.
"Sam, did I talk in my sleep?" Her voice seemed almost normal, rising and falling.
"No. There was a sign back there."
"That's not possible. Briscoe County was something my grandmother used to scare us into behaving. You went to Briscoe County if you did something real bad. The demons there would get you and you wouldn't die no matter what they did. It's not a real place."
Before Sam could answer, two screeching gray birds, the size of men, with long snouts and leathery wings, landed in the road ahead. They struggled, clawed feet locked together, fighting over what looked like a round ball rolling between them. White sparks flew when their claws scraped the gray asphalt.
Sam worked the brakes, and was about to hit the birds, when they flapped away, dropping a lacerated, bald human head. It hit the windshield nose first and skidded off, leaving a gray streak. He saw frantic dark brown eyes darting back and forth in the skull.
"Oh, my God," Jill said. "It's alive."
Sam hit the gas and turned on the windshield washer until the gray blood streak faded. Squeaking wipers and the air conditioner were the only sounds. He looked at Jill. She was alert despite the morphine.
"They're coming for me."
"The demons. I did something really bad and now they're coming for me."
"What did you do that was so bad? Oh, shit."
They were suddenly on a gray dirt road in the middle of a bizarre city with black stone buildings stacked at odd angles on either side, to the horizon. The buildings seemed cut from solid rock with crooked window frames lacking glass and openings without doors titled at forty-five degree angles.
"I'm turning around. This is crazy."
She touched his right arm. "Sam, I murdered my sister."
He hit the brakes and stopped, hands locked around the steering wheel. His heart pounded his temples.
"I don't want to hear this."
"She did everything better than me. I hated her."
He sensed movement from the buildings, slithering blurs.
"I wrapped that rope around her neck and pushed her off the loft. I watched her strangle."
"Stop it, Jill."
"My family knew I did it."
"Why are you telling me all this?"
"I love you, Sam. The demons somehow made me want to see my sister's grave. They made me come before I die so they could get me. I need your help now."
Something screeched and hit the trunk. Claws ticked across the roof.
He stared into her dark eyes so full of pain, fear, and determination. She glanced at the gun between his legs.
"I can't lift it, Sam. Don't let them keep me alive. You saw that head. Don't let them do that to me."
What looked like huge gray lips hit the windshield and spread wide, exposing jagged white teeth clicking open and closed rapidly.
"Don't let them, Sam."
His mind stalled, doubting the sensory input. An oily rotten garbage stench filled the car. The left rear tire hissed, going flat. A clawed black hand scraped at Jill's window.
Jill's voice went high and shrill. "Damn it, Sam. It's real."
He gripped the gun, as if outside his body watching, and pulled the hammer back. Jill looked down and away as he placed the muzzle through her tangled hair until he bumped bone.
"Oh, God," he said, and pulled the trigger.
"That's the last thing I remember," Sam told the detective.
"And you expect me to believe that story?" Roberts said.
Sam massaged his eyebrows with his right hand. "It's true."
"You've done a very bad thing." The voice was deeper, almost a growl. "You let her escape."
Sam lowered his hand and looked up. What had been Detective Roberts melted away, revealing something shiny black, a mess of jagged teeth, stunted wings, and clawed hands. The thing struck at Sam's right arm, slicing to the bone from his elbow to wrist. It happened so fast Sam didn't feel pain, yet. Other slithering things entered the room. His arm started stinging, burning.
In shock, Sam stared up into the coal black eyes of his attacker and realized he could not die, ever. The thing spoke to him in a guttural voice.
"Sam, you're still in Briscoe County."
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