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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.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Outside In: Review by A.L. Sirois

In Briscoe County

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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.

"Jesus Christ."

Jill opened her eyes and slowly looked around.

"What's wrong?"

"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?"

"Yes."

"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?"

(continued)

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