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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.
In Briscoe County
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"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.
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