Daniel Crocker

The Big Cross

Carl was talk­ing to his twin sis­ter, Kate, who had dreamed of a glow­ing cross light­ing up the desert.

It’s real,” Kate said. “I Googled it. It’s in Texas.”

It sounds like a coin­ci­dence,” Carl said. It was 8:22 and time to make announce­ments at Irondale High, where he was the new vice prin­ci­pal and had once been known as Little Carl. He’d giv­en up a job in admin­is­tra­tion at St. Louis Community College and moved back to the coun­try to be with his sis­ter. A year lat­er she’d been diag­nosed with ALS.

It’s huge,” Kate said. “Skyscraper huge.”

Send me a link. I’ll take a look.”

Just come over after work. I’ll show you.”

Kate and her hus­band Terry owned a small bar and grill. They’d done well enough, but Kate still liked to wait tables. Broke up the bore­dom, she said. Then her back start­ed hurt­ing, and she felt tired all the time. She told her­self she was just get­ting old. Then she start­ed drop­ping things, plates and trays, and her arms shook some­times. She knew then what it was. It had killed Lou Gehrig and it had killed her moth­er and now, she fig­ured, it was going to kill her.

Dr. Bremer said she could die with­in the year. “It’s pro­gress­ing quick­ly,” he said. “But some peo­ple live a very long time. Stephen Hawking, for exam­ple.”

Who else?” Kate asked. “Name one oth­er per­son.” Dr. Bremer couldn’t.

There had only been a ten per­cent chance Kate would inher­it her mother’s dis­ease Dr. Bremer had said, and her bad luck filled her with, if not exact­ly pride, then a sense of des­tiny.

Carl arrived at his sister’s house a lit­tle after four. His head hurt. He had sus­pend­ed a kid, nor­mal­ly a qui­et kid, a good stu­dent, for hav­ing half an ounce of mar­i­jua­na in his lock­er. His girl­friend had rat­ted him out because he’d tak­en Amanda Green mud­ding in his pick­up. The police had to be called and as the boy was being escort­ed away, his girl­friend came run­ning out of Biology drag­ging her book bag behind her and scream­ing, I’m sor­ry, Tim. I’m so sor­ry. You can’t be sor­ry enough, Tim said. But I for­give you any­way, baby. Sarah, Carl’s sec­re­tary, thought it was sweet. For Carl it was just a big mess.

Kate was at the kitchen table with her poo­dle, Rocky, asleep at her feet and snoring—it had emphy­se­ma. Terry sat oppo­site Kate, his pie-face unread­able. His arms were thin and tat­tooed, and he was hold­ing a cig­a­rette that bad­ly need­ed tip­ping. The table was cov­ered in com­put­er print outs of pic­tures and maps.

Look,” Kate said, point­ing to a pic­ture of the cross. It was white and an eigh­teen wheel­er was parked at its base to give it scale. The pic­ture had a smudged, sur­re­al qual­i­ty. “This is what I dreamt.”

You dreamed the pic­ture or the cross?” Carl asked.

This stopped her for a moment. She tried to think of the right thing to say. She and Carl still looked a lot alike. Bright red hair, near­ly six feet tall, broad faces and iden­ti­cal green eyes. Kate was still freck­led, though not as heav­i­ly as when she was a kid.

Kate point­ed at the pic­ture of the cross again. “I know this is it. It’s the sec­ond largest cross in the Western Hemisphere. It’s 190 feet tall, can you believe that?”

Terry whis­tled, like you might if your din­ner bill was fifty dol­lars high­er than you thought it would be. Carl picked up Terry’s pack of men­thols even though he’d quit a few years ear­li­er. He almost lit one, but thought bet­ter of it and slid them back toward Terry. He drummed his fin­gers against the cof­fee stained doily that cov­ered the table. Kate hat­ed that thing, but Terry’s moth­er had made it for them as a wed­ding present. It had once been beau­ti­ful.

We have to go,” Kate said. “Right away.” Her hands were shaky as she pushed the pic­ture toward her broth­er. She assumed Carl would take her.

I thought you were over all of this God stuff?” Carl said.

I’m start­ing over,” Kate said.

It would be a nice trip for you and Terry. It will be good for the two of you to get away for a few days.”

Kate snort­ed. “You don’t believe me, do you?”

I believe you had a dream, but it all seems odd.”

I can’t go,” Terry said, as if just real­iz­ing there was a con­ver­sa­tion going on around him. “I need to watch the restau­rant. Besides, I have no desire to go.”

Carl looked back and forth between his sis­ter and broth­er-in-law. They’d been mar­ried eleven years and nev­er had chil­dren.

Kate took her brother’s hand with both of hers. “We have to go,” she said.

What do you think, Terry?” Carl hoped for some mea­sure of com­mon sense.

I think you’re going to take her,” Terry said. “So just agree to it and get it over with.”

Carl took a per­son­al day and arrived at his sister’s house Friday morn­ing. She was sit­ting on the couch in plaid paja­mas. There was a brown suit­case beside her; they’d had it since they were kids. Although fad­ed, the Transformers stick­er Carl had put on it was still there. The trip would take close to eleven hours, and Carl planned to make it in one long stretch, get a hotel some­where near Groom, and be back home in plen­ty of time for Saturday Night Live.

Are you going to get dressed?” Carl asked.

It’s a long dri­ve,” she said. “I may as well be com­fort­able, and it’s not like I’m inde­cent.”

Carl picked up the suit­case; it was heavy.

What have you got in here?” Carl curled the suit­case like it was a bar­bell.

Just stuff.” She held the front door open for him. “You could use some exer­cise any­way. Do you think Sarah wants to go out with flab-o-arms?”

Kate’s teas­ing had an edge. He’d had a crush on his sec­re­tary, Sarah, since his first week at work when she told Coach Brewer that if he called his new boss Little Carl one more time, she’d make sure his next check got lost. But despite his sister’s prod­ding, Carl had nev­er asked her out.

He stopped in the door­way, “Do you need to say good­bye to Terry or feed the dog or any­thing?”

All tak­en care of.”

They were back­ing down the dri­ve­way when the back tire raised slight­ly, and there was a brief, loud yelp. Carl put the car in park and it slid anoth­er foot, grav­el crack­ling under the tires, before it stopped.

I think I just backed over Rocky,” he said. They got out to check. Kate was already tear­ing up and bit­ing the col­lar of her paja­mas. Fuck, Carl thought. Fuck. He pulled the dog out from under­neath the car. Its mid­sec­tion was flat­tened and the intestines had been pushed out, like cord­ed ropes, from both the mouth and anus.

Jesus,” Carl said. “I’m so sor­ry, sis.”

Kate bent over the corpse and stroked its head. Finally, she stood up, her eyes were red. “She was old and I think she had a good life, don’t you?”

Yes.”

There’s a shov­el in the shed. I can’t leave her like this.”

Carl fold­ed his jack­et neat­ly onto the back seat, rolled up his sleeves, and put Rocky in the Hefty brand garbage bag Kate brought him. It was a Cinch Sak, with a bright yel­low draw string. As care­ful as he was, Carl end­ed up with blood on his shirt. It was late October and the ground was hard, but not yet frozen through. It took him forty-five min­utes, and at one point he saw Terry’s face, round and somber, star­ing out the kitchen win­dow at him, smok­ing a cig­a­rette.

We’ll have to stop by my place for anoth­er shirt,” he said, hand­ing the shov­el to Kate when it was done.

It’ll dry,” she said, and brushed at the blood stain as if she could wipe it away with her hand. “I’m beg­ging you, Carl. I feel like I need to get there soon.”

There was no place to stop on Highway 32, and by the time they reached I-44, it was eleven am. They stopped in Rolla for ham­burg­ers. .

What is that?” The blond girl asked, lean­ing out of the dri­ve-thru win­dow to point at Carl’s shirt. Carl didn’t know what to say. The long dri­ve had lulled him into a fan­ta­sy world, and he’d for­got­ten about the stain.

Ketchup,” Kate said. “We tried McDonald’s first. Awful stuff, messy.”

Oh,” the girl said. “Actually, I pre­fer them. Here’s your food. You folks have a good day.” As they pulled away, Kate pat­ted her brother’s thigh before lean­ing her head against the win­dow and clos­ing her eyes.

She didn’t wake up until they were in Oklahoma. Carl stopped at a Wal-Mart in the very dry look­ing town of Glendale. Everything had a faint yel­low tinge. It’s just an illu­sion, Carl thought, dead and dried up grass, yel­low and tan hous­es.

Carl shook his sis­ter awake. “Can you get me a shirt?”

Kate stretched her arms, near­ly pok­ing her broth­er in the eye. “In my paja­mas?”

It’s not like you’re inde­cent,” Carl said.

Fine. What size and what kind?” Kate slipped on her shoes.

Just get me a white one. They come in a plas­tic pack­age and the brand name is George.” Carl hand­ed her some mon­ey.

Kate nod­ded and got out of the car. After about ten steps, she turned her head around, poked out her butt, and stuck her tongue out at Carl. Once she was out of sight, he took a book from his glove compartment—an old copy of Spider-man: Kraven’s Last Hunt. He’d first read it in sev­enth grade, and had come back to it prob­a­bly twen­ty times. He was lost in it when an old man knocked on his win­dow.

Hey,” the man said. There was a black spot on his tongue.

Carl shook his head no. The man knocked again.

I don’t have any mon­ey,” Carl said and waved the man away. He put his hand on the keys dan­gling from the igni­tion.

I just need a dol­lar. I need to get to Texas. I have an aunt there. I need bus mon­ey.”

Go away,” Carl said. “I don’t have any mon­ey.”

Carl saw his sis­ter, a Wal-Mart bag dan­gling from one arm and her purse from the oth­er. He start­ed the car and rolled down the passenger’s side win­dow.

Be care­ful, Kate,” he said. She was approach­ing the man and dig­ging through her purse for mon­ey. Carl opened his car door, push­ing the man back­wards with it.

Hey,” he said. “Be care­ful.”

I told you to go away,” Carl said.

I’m going to Texas,” the man said.

Me too,” Kate said, as if that explained every­thing, and gave him ten dol­lars. He looked at it for a moment, stuffed it in his pock­et and walked off.

Kate tossed her broth­er the Wal-Mart bag. He pulled a short sleeved, Hawaiian print shirt out of it.

What this?” he asked.

It was on clear­ance. Besides, I thought you’d look good in some­thing with col­or.”

Damn it,” Carl said. “Try to block me from peo­ple.” He took off his blood-stained shirt. Kate stood fac­ing him. The shirt was too small and stretched across his stom­ach. The gaps around the but­tons hung open like mouths. Kate stuck her fin­ger through one of them and poked Carl in the bel­ly.

You’ve put on a few. I can still fit in the same clothes I wore in high school, Little Carl.”

Carl looked at his reflec­tion in the car win­dow. “I look like a tourist,” he said. “A Glendale, Oklahoma, tourist. Well, screw it. Let’s go.”

In Tulsa, Kate decid­ed she want­ed a sit-down din­ner. They stopped at Applebees and Carl ordered a steak and iced tea. Kate ordered a Miller Lite, no food.

Is beer real­ly healthy for you?”

It relax­es my mus­cles.” Kate fin­gered her hair, twist­ing it into red spi­rals. She was shak­ing.

You’re an adult. Do what you want.”

Carl smiled at the wait­ress when she brought his food and ordered Kate anoth­er draft.

She’s pret­ty,” Kate said. The girl looked to be in her ear­ly twen­ties, curly black hair, soft fea­tures. Carl nod­ded.

You were look­ing at her,” she said.

I don’t think so.”

How long’s it been since you’ve been laid?”

None of your busi­ness.” Carl cut up his steak. He’d asked for it well done, but it was pink in the mid­dle.

Tell me it hasn’t been since Belinda.” When Carl didn’t respond she said, “I bet it wasn’t even good with Belinda. She was a cold fish. I could have told you it wouldn’t work out.”

Then why didn’t you?” Carl asked.

Kate shrugged. “You don’t need some­one as reserved as you are. You need some­one like Sarah, don’t you think?”

Carl didn’t answer.

They turned west onto I-40, toward Amarillo. It was the last long stretch of high­way before Groom. The sun had slipped into the hori­zon. Kate remarked on it. She thought the sun looked big­ger in the west. Carl didn’t notice a dif­fer­ence.

Remember when we were kids and I was afraid to dri­ve?”

Sure,” Carl said.

Remember what you used to do?”

Carl gunned the engine and the car leaped for­ward.

That’s right,” Kate said. “Used to scare me to death.”

Got you to take your dri­ving exam at least.”

Not real­ly. Sometimes I think part of the rea­son I put it off so long was because I loved the way it felt in your old truck on the back Irondale roads. I felt so out of con­trol, so free. I loved it. I loved you and I knew you wouldn’t let me get hurt.”

That was a long time ago,” Carl said.

Do it again. Please, Carl. There’s not much traf­fic.”

It’s too dan­ger­ous.” Kate gripped Carl’s knee. Please, she said again. One more time.

The ’88 LaSabre didn’t have the appetite for the road his old truck had, but Carl pushed down on the gas: 70mph, 80, 85. “Now,” Kate said. Carl turned off the head­lights. Kate squealed and buried her head in Carl’s shoul­der. Look, he said, look. Kate lift­ed her head and all she could see were the reflec­tors that divid­ed the lanes. She felt like she was being shot through space.

The man Carl almost hit was push­ing an emp­ty wheel­chair down the shoul­der of the high­way. Kate insist­ed they pull over. The man was in his mid-thir­ties, deeply tanned. He was short, wear­ing a tight white T-shirt and jeans; his mus­cles seemed to Carl like traps set on a spring.

Careful there, fel­la,” the man called out. “You could kill a guy dri­ving like that.”

You were walk­ing pret­ty close to the high­way,” Carl said.

I guess I was. I’ve been walk­ing a long way and you tend to lose track of things after a while. Then again you didn’t have your lights on.”

Do you need a ride?” Kate asked.

No way,” Carl said.

It’s the least we can do,” she said. “We almost killed him.”

I guess I could use a ride. I got busi­ness in Groom.”

So do we,” Kate said. “That’s where we’re going.”

Look, I don’t mean any offense,” Carl said. “But we don’t know you.”

You’re good to be cau­tious,” the man said. “These are trou­bling times. But I can assure you I’m on the Lord’s work.”

Kate put her hand on the back of her brother’s neck, pulled him close to her and whis­pered, “It’s a sign. Please.”

Carl had nev­er admit­ted it, but even more than sad­ness, which he did feel, he’d most­ly been over­come by guilt since his sis­ter had been diag­nosed. It could have eas­i­ly been him. It might still be him, although the odds were against it. He ques­tioned him­self every day since she’d got­ten the news. He’d been at the doctor’s office with her and com­fort­ed her when she turned to him instead of Terry. He had even gone so far as to write him­self a mes­sage on a yel­low Post it and stick it in his wal­let: Am I wast­ing my life?

The man fold­ed up the wheel­chair, put it in the back of the car and slid in after it.

Name’s Bill Reilly,” he said.

Carl wait­ed with his blink­er on at the shoul­der of the road for a break in traf­fic. “Like the guy on Fox news,” he said.

That’s O’Reilly.” Bill leaned close to the back of Carl’s seat. His cologne was strong and spicy. “O’Reilly’s no Christian.”

You should put your seat belt on,” Carl said.

No need when you’re rid­ing with the Lord.” Bill pat­ted Carl’s shoul­der and then squeezed it.

Just to be safe,” Kate said, turn­ing around to get a bet­ter look at Bill. “I’m Kate, and this is my twin broth­er, Carl.”

Bill snapped his seat belt shut. “You don’t look like twins,” he said. “I fig­ured you for a mar­ried cou­ple.”

We used to look alike,” Kate said. “Then he got fat. Believe it or not, they used to call him Little Carl.”

He looks like a lit­tle Carl,” Bill said and removed a flask from the front pock­et of his jeans. He took a drink. The smell of whiskey was strong.

Hey now,” Carl said. “You can’t drink that in here. It’s against the law.”

I fol­low God’s law,” he said. “Would you like a drink?”

I’m dri­ving,” Carl said. His sis­ter, how­ev­er, polite­ly accept­ed.

That’s good,” she said, hand­ing the bot­tle back to Bill.

So,” Carl said, “what exact­ly is this work you’re on?”

I’ll tell you. I sell these wheel­chairs. Been at it for about six months now. I do pret­ty good.”

Then where’s your car?”

Don’t you wor­ry about that, Carl.” Bill said. “It’s good for­tune I was picked up by you folks, see­ing as we’re going to the same place. Yep, I knew Groom was the place for me as soon as I heard about that cross.”

That’s where we’re going,” Kate said.

That’s a good sign. You’re good peo­ple. I heard about the cross from a truck­er. Sold him a wheel­chair. His wife need­ed it.”

So what do you do when you sell one?” Carl asked. “How do you get anoth­er one?”

Don’t be fool­ish, Carl.” Bill said. “This is just a mod­el. When I sell one, I write the buyer’s name and address down and have the com­pa­ny send it. It’s an even split out of five-hun­dred. I guess I sell about ten a month. You could say I got the mag­ic touch.”

You’ve got the mag­ic touch,” Kate said. Bill hand­ed her the flask again, and she took a drink. “I had a dream about the cross. I saw it in a vision.”

I don’t doubt it,” Bill said. “I can sense these things. My moth­er called it the eye of God. Not psy­chic, mind you, that’s Lucifer’s work. I sensed some­thing about you right away.”

I bet,” Carl said.

That’s right, Carl. Anyway, that truck­er told me there’s God fear­ing folks in Groom, and I didn’t take him for a liar. I do good busi­ness with Christians. They know they can trust me.”

I can see that about you,” Kate said.

Thank you,” Bill said. “I get that a lot. Take two folks like you, a pret­ty lady and the meek type. You wouldn’t just pick up any­body.”

I’m not meek,” Carl said.

Don’t be ashamed,” Bill said and pat­ted Carl’s shoul­der again. “This is a sin­ful world and the meek will inher­it it. I know you wouldn’t just pick up any­one. They might be a killer or some­thing worse. But you picked me up. It’s a gift I have. It’s the rea­son I got into sales.”

I almost hit you,” Carl said.

Have you always been a sales­man?” Kate asked.

I worked in a bank for a while, but it wasn’t for me. I was called to the open road. I start­ed out sell­ing Jesus Mirrors. Those sold well, but I get more of a cut from the wheel­chairs. I make a lot more mon­ey even though I don’t sell as many of them. And there’s no sin in it. A man has to eat. Ain’t that right, Carl?”

Jesus Mirrors?” Carl said.

Yes, Jesus Mirrors, Carl. Mirrors with the face of Jesus paint­ed on them. Some of them have a Bible verse. ‘Yea though we walk through the val­ley of the shad­ow of death’ was my big sell­er.”

Figures,” Kate said. “It’s just mor­bid enough.”

Not mor­bid,” Bill said. “It gives hope. Sold good in Arkansas espe­cial­ly. They most­ly hung them in the liv­ing room.”

Interesting,” Kate said.

Yes it is,” Bill said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to sleep for a bit. Don’t you two wor­ry. You’re safe with me.”

Kate slept as well. Eventually, Carl’s eyes began to blur. He couldn’t see the exit signs until he was right up on them, and the lights from the cars in the oth­er lane blind­ed him. He was close to the Groom exit, prob­a­bly sev­en­ty miles away, but he pulled into the next town any­way. He filled the car up with gas and then woke Kate and Bill.

I can’t dri­ve any­more,” Carl said.

How close are we?” Kate asked.

Close, but it’s get­ting too dan­ger­ous. So unless one of you wants to dri­ve we’re going to have to find a place to stay.”

You know I can’t dri­ve,” Kate said.

I’ve been drink­ing,” Bill said. “I don’t have a license any­way.”

Carl untucked his shirt and felt bet­ter. “We’re going to have to get a hotel.” Bill was already climb­ing out of the back­seat, drag­ging his wheel chair with him.

You good folks go on ahead,” he said. “There might be some busi­ness here.”

What about the cross?” Kate asked. “Don’t you want to see it?”

I’ll get there,” Bill said. “I’ve trou­bled you all enough. You two be care­ful who you pick up. There are bad folks out there.”

We will,” Kate said.

There’s a mir­a­cle wait­ing for you,” Bill said. “Funny things hap­pen when peo­ple get down this way.”

Thank you,” Kate said.

One more thing.” Bill unfold­ed his wheel­chair. “You all in the need of one of these?”

No,” Carl said.

They only rent­ed one room because Kate didn’t want to stay alone. Carl lay down imme­di­ate­ly, tak­ing off only his shoes. He told his sis­ter it was fine if she relaxed with some tele­vi­sion as long as she kept it low. He was tired, but when he closed his eyes he could still see the high­way behind his eye­lids. When sleep final­ly came, he kept mov­ing down a dark, end­less road.

He woke a few hours lat­er feel­ing sick at his stom­ach. Motion sick­ness, he thought. The tele­vi­sion was off, but the lamp beside his bed was on. Carl looked over to the next bed. Except for the suit­case, it was emp­ty.

Kate,” he said. There was no answer. He stood up, fight­ing off a moment of dis­ori­en­ta­tion, and checked the bath­room. She was gone. Taking his cell phone off the night stand, he dialed her num­ber. A mut­ed ring came from inside of the suit­case. Carl opened it.

Kate’s under­gar­ments lay on top, silky and frilly, the sort you would wear on a date. He picked them up, held them for a moment, and set them aside. He saw what made the suit­case so heavy. Crosses, a hun­dred or so of them—plastic, sil­ver, ceram­ic. Some had the ema­ci­at­ed fig­ure of Jesus on them, most were plain. What does she think is going to hap­pen, Carl thought.

He found the phone; there was a new text mes­sage from Terry: I hope you and ass­hole are hav­ing a good time.

Carl put his shoes back on and went into the bath­room to splash water on his face. His eyes were red. He’d heard music when they were check­ing in and thought there must be a lounge. He found Kate there. She was sit­ting at the bar, wear­ing a red dress, cut low in the front, that brought out her hair and eyes. A drink sat in front of her, and she was talk­ing to a young man. The lounge was crowd­ed and the band had just start­ed “Jessie’s Girl” when Carl tapped her on the shoul­der.

Don’t you think you’re tak­ing this drink­ing bit too far,” he said.

Carl,” she said and wrapped her arms around his neck.

This is Jim. Right, Jim?”

Jim,” the young man said.

Carl nod­ded at him before turn­ing his atten­tion back to his sis­ter. “Really, we should get back to our room.”

Just have one drink,” Kate said.

No, and you’re not hav­ing any more either.” He picked up Kate’s glass. It looked like whiskey and coke. He hand­ed it to the bar­tender.

Hey now,” Jim said. “The lady can have a drink if she wants one.”

This lady,” Carl said, “is mar­ried. She’s also dying.”

Kate stood up and left with­out say­ing a word. Carl fol­lowed her to the room, but she wouldn’t speak to him. She locked her­self in the bath­room, and Carl could hear the mut­ed sound of run­ning water. He knocked on the door.

I’m sor­ry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

Fuck you,” she said.

Really. I didn’t mean to. I’m sor­ry, okay?”

And I said fuck you.”

Carl took off his shoes again and set them beside the bed. It felt good to lie down. He was wor­ried about Kate, he was sor­ry, but the sound of run­ning water lulled him to sleep.

He could feel some­thing stuck in his side. It tick­led at first, but then it start­ed to hurt. When he woke up, Kate was lying beside him and she had an inch of his fat between her fin­gers. She was squeez­ing so hard her face was red.

I was drink­ing Diet Coke,” she said. “And I was enjoy­ing myself you self-cen­tered cock­suck­er.”

She sat up on the side of the bed and wob­bled a bit before get­ting her bal­ance. She was wear­ing a night­gown, white and sheer, with noth­ing under­neath it.

It’s not like you haven’t seen my tits before,” she said. “Mother bathed us togeth­er until she died.” Kate began to sob and her freck­les blos­somed into dark stars across her face. “I’m going to die too,” she said.

Carl want­ed to com­fort her, but he didn’t know what to do. He’d rehearsed this moment a thou­sand times in his head, and each time he’d said some­thing pro­found. But now he found he could say noth­ing worth­while.

You’re not going to die,” she said. “Not you.”

I’m sor­ry.”

I believe you real­ly are sor­ry, and I hate you for it.” She lay down next to Carl, rest­ing her head on his shoul­der. They’d not slept like that since they were kids haunt­ed by night­mares of their mother’s death. Their father, Big Carl, had died a lit­tle bit with his wife and paid no atten­tion to them. Carl had with­drawn from peo­ple, focus­ing on his school­work, while Kate, before her twelfth birth­day, start­ed doing meth. Carl found her using it half-naked with the old guy next door. He went back home, got his father’s gun, and shot the man in the leg. The man couldn’t report him, of course, and he moved short­ly after­wards.

And I’m going to be ugly, too,” Kate said. “Twisted and ugly.”

No you’re not,” Carl said. “You’ll always be beau­ti­ful. And there’s still the cross.”

Kate propped her­self up on her elbow, leaned over Carl and kissed him. After a few moments, she stopped. “You kissed me back.”

Carl didn’t respond.

I’m so sor­ry, Carl,” she said. She stood up and went to her own bed. “You can’t be in love with me. It’s gross, and as you so ele­gant­ly put it, I’m dying any­way.”

Kate was in a good mood the next morn­ing. She hummed as she dressed. Carl was qui­et and ner­vous. She final­ly sat down beside him, squeezed his hand and said, “Lighten up.”

You were drunk last night,” Carl said.

Seriously, light­en up. I wor­ry about what’s going to hap­pen to you. I real­ly do.”

Let’s go to the cross. Let’s just see what hap­pens.”

When they were 25 miles from Groom, they could already see the cross. It grew larg­er and larg­er until they found them­selves in its shad­ow. The park­ing lot had a smat­ter­ing of cars in it. The sec­ond largest cross in the Western Hemisphere did good busi­ness.

Carl parked the car. The cross loomed above them.

It’s now or nev­er,” he said.

Wait,” Kate said. “I have to say some­thing.”

Go ahead.”

I slept with that guy last night. We did it in the back of the hotel, right in front of someone’s door. We didn’t even use pro­tec­tion.”

Oh.”

Do you think God will hold that against me?”

I don’t think so,” Carl said. “Terry might.” Kate dis­missed it with a wave of her hand.

Let’s go,” Carl said, point­ing to the cross.

To Carl, once he was up close, the cross looked like a Titan from mythology—a giant with arms spread open. There was a plaque and a small stat­ue of a baby at the bot­tom of it. Choose Life it read.

It’s a dil­ly.”

It’s ugly,” Kate said. “Just steel and white paint.”

I can’t believe it. Look.”

Bill was walk­ing toward them, push­ing his wheel­chair and smil­ing. He waved.

Kate reached out and touched the cross. She closed her eyes and after a moment with­drew her hand.

Do you feel any dif­fer­ent?” His voice was plead­ing.

Today-day,” she said, as if speak­ing into a great micro­phone, “I con­sid­er myself-self-self. The Luckiest …”

Man man man,” Carl said.

Please Carl,” his sis­ter said. “Please.”

He looked up. It was noth­ing but steel and white paint. Bill waved again. Carl waved back.