LITTLE WHITE CROSSES
Kira K Homsher and Melanie Kleid
Look, four dead people, said Ankle. His arm stretched across the passenger seat where Spasm sat to gesture at the right side of the highway.
What, said Spasm without taking her eyes off her phone. Someone from her hometown had been canceled on Twitter, and she was trying to find the original callout post so that she could text a few of her remaining high school friends about it. She looked out the window too late and saw nothing but Montana.
They were driving home to the East Coast from Seattle, where they'd spent the past three weeks with Ankle's mom and stepdad. They brought their German Shepherd named Rotmouth, whose breath smelled like rot. He slept with his head on the center console between them. It was a four-day drive and they mostly did not speak except to point out roadkill and curious billboards. Occasionally, they remarked on how some of the forested mountains ahead were topped with bare, treeless patches of land. They talked about the trees like they had feelings, as if they had something against those patches and decided not to grow there. They discussed what the trees liked and didn't like.
What, she said again, with more interest. Dead people?
Yeah. Haven't you noticed the little white crosses on the side of the road? They're to mark where someone has died in an accident.
Spasm considered this, peering out through the passenger window. She counted scattered crosses as they sped by, finding a quiet victory in each: every cross marked a spot where she, Spasm, had not died but had instead passed through and lived. Her fortune weighed heavy on her conscience and she marveled privately at how she had made it this far with all her limbs intact, at how little thought had gone into this business of remaining alive and not turning into a cross on the roadside.
This was one of several things she had learned on their road trip. Another was the bug guts on the windshield. She thought all the splotches were just flecks of dirt from the highway and maybe some bird shit, but Ankle explained that it was actually bugs hitting the glass with such force that they splattered. The road brought out these hidden morsels of Ankle's knowledge: he knew how to pronounce the names of small towns she had never heard of, like Minot, Montana and Parmelee, South Dakota, and he knew that when the fuel gauge was on E there was really still one extra gallon to get you to the gas station.
Spasm felt safe attached to these small pockets of wisdom. She felt protected from the ruthless, backwards country, which was pristine as a painting and menacing as a gun. Across the green of the hills and fields, she imagined, lived lonely white men with booze, rifles, and jobs that wouldn't exist in a decade. She wondered how many of them would turn into little white crosses.
Jesus Christ, sit down, yelled Ankle.
Rotmouth had stood up to bark at something neither of them could see. Spasm dropped her phone and tried to wrestle the dog away from the front of the car. Ankle gripped the wheel, swearing. Rotmouth was belligerent—they had never seen him like this. Ankle swerved into the right lane and slammed the brakes. Rotmouth collapsed onto the backseat and Ankle hit the gas again. A truck honked as it rushed past them; the horn seemed to sound from somewhere distant, like a movie playing from another room. The car rolled forward, silent.
Rotmouth, Ankle mumbled in apology. He almost hit the gear shift.
It's fine. The truck was nowhere near us.
Spasm breathed through her nose, surprised to find that she wasn't the least bit disturbed. Nothing was going to happen. She rested her head against the window, comforted by the thrumming of the glass against her skull, and folded her hand in Ankle's.
Many miles passed that way, in the rocking of skull against sun-warm glass and the vibration of steering wheel against palm, with Rotmouth's fetid breath gently invading their nostrils. After a time, they saw a great coal-black mound standing in silhouette against a grassy plain. It appeared smooth and sandy, and reminded Spasm of the surface of some unexplored planet, with its velvety dips and craters.
It's tar, Ankle speculated.
It's coal, said Spasm. Or some sort of black sand.
Around the bend, they saw the tall chimney of an immense furnace on the horizon, and it was only then that they understood they were looking at a mountain of ash.
I wrote this story in the car while driving across the country with my boyfriend and our stinky dog. I sent it to Melanie shortly after and she decided she wanted to illustrate it. We hope to continue collaborating on illustrated flash stories, focusing on apparitions in desolate American landscapes.