The Cross

by Michael Schrimper

Lori Ann stood beneath a roadside beech tree, nailing a white cross to its trunk. She muttered to herself as she worked. "God's will," she said softly, "God's will." After she rammed one nail into the cross, she stepped away to check how she'd done. The cross swung and hung upside down. Her daughter's name inverted so she could no longer read it. She tilted her head to the side. "Abigail Rebecca Lacey," she said to herself.

A cold September wind blew and she returned to the cross. She righted it and extracted another chilly nail from her pocket. The task was harder than she had expected—not on an emotional and spiritual level, but on a physical one: her fingertips were sore and bloated where the hammer had got her. And she still had the flowers to do, she thought. A bright, fragrant variety was spread out in the backseat of the Pontiac—which was parked safely on the roadside—and she was going to spread them decoratively underneath the tree, once she finished with the cross.

She was hammering the third nail in, when a man stepped out of the woods. She exclaimed in surprise and jumped away from the cross. "Where'd you come from?" she said.

The man said nothing and sauntered up to her. He immediately struck her as arrogant, in an outdoorsy, Robert Redford kind of way. Probably one of the business executives who had moved to the area for the long-range views, she thought. He stood tall and brawny in front of her, with thick fingers hooked through his belt loops.

"This is private property, ma'am," he said. "I'm not sure what you think you're doing but—" he looked at the cross, and Lori Ann thought he hesitated.

"Nice to meet you, too," she responded curtly. She had no problem sliding a biting undertone beneath her kindly rural manners. It was her way of showing out-of-towners how they did things around here. She extended her hand and when he shook it, she noticed his fingers were rough, as though he'd just finished hauling bricks. "Lori Ann Lacey," she said.

"Dan Carpenter."

"Dan Carpenter." She nodded. "You live nearby?"

The man grinned. "This is my property, ma'am," he said. "I'm afraid you're going to have to take that sign down."

That sign? Lori Ann thought. What did he think she was doing here, selling berries? She stepped aside so he had a clear view of the cross. "That's my daughter," she said, with a jerk of her head toward the name printed across the horizontal bar.

"I'm sorry to hear that," Dan Carpenter said. He shoved his hands into his pockets. "I heard about that wreck. I'm sorry for your loss."

It sounded to Lori Ann as though he were marking off a checklist of things he should say but didn't necessarily want to.

"But at the end of the day, ma'am," he said, "this is private property. And I'm gonna have to ask you to take that down."

Lori Ann blinked. Heat flooded her face. She pulled at the front of her sweatshirt, fanned herself with it. "There are crosses all up and down this stretch," she said indignantly.

"Well, this here is the only one on my land," he replied. He looked over one shoulder and then another, as though in search of the alleged crosses.

Lori Ann scowled. She hadn't slept this week, was both exhausted and frustrated. She tried to think of something official-sounding to say, knowing it would take something like that to get this hardheaded fool to listen to her. "The state owns five feet on either side of the road," she said, but as she said it she lowered her voice. She was unsure whether it was, in fact, true. And besides, the cross and the tree stood more than five feet from the road.

Dan Carpenter raised his eyebrows, as though probing her to continue. Lori Ann suddenly reverted to her fundamental nature, and pointed at the tree. "God's the reason that thing's standing there in the first place," she said, "and God's the reason my daughter's with Him. So this don't really concern you."

Dan Carpenter shook his head, kneaded the bridge of his nose with his thick pink fingers.

"Oh trust me I'm a lot more tired than you," Lori Ann said then.

Dan Carpenter said nothing. His lips were thin and unmoving.

The wind blew, and Lori Ann got a whiff of rotten carcass. Road kill—opossum, she thought sourly. She was suddenly reminded that she didn't like standing here—she wasn't usually outdoors in the evening, for one, and it was unsafe on the roadside, for another—she wanted this done as quickly as possible. She still had to go home and change for church, after all. Tonight was Wednesday evening service.

A car horn blurted, and Lori Ann craned her neck to watch the vehicle pass. She spotted a dusty white Honda just before it disappeared around the bend. Did she know the driver? She hadn't recognized the car. She imagined the girls from prayer group traveling by, witnessing this roadside dispute, and coming to her aide. They would tear this Dan Carpenter character apart. As she thought of this—the support of her friends—and she imagined telling the girls about the argument that night at church, she became more self-assured. "This doesn't concern you," she said to the man then. "This is between God, me, and my daughter. Leave it."

"Look, to be honest," Dan Carpenter said in a low, hoarse voice that startled Lori Ann with its graveness, "I don't believe in owning land. I don't. But I also don't believe in…that," and he pointed at the cross.

Lori Ann managed a shrug. Inside, however, she was reeling. "You're not a Christian, that's your business. But, I am. And this is my way of remembering my daughter." She went to the cross with a nail in one hand and the hammer in the other.

Dan Carpenter stepped in front of her, blocking her from the tree, and pointed at a gravel driveway that extended from the main road. "You see that? That's the entrance to my property. I live on forty acres."

"All right," Lori said curtly. The hammer hung in her right hand.

"That's my Church," Dan Carpenter said. "You may not understand it, but that—this—is my sacred ground," he said. "It's sacred to me. And so," and he walked over to the tree and touched it with an open hand, "I don't take kindly to people coming up here and maiming it." He rubbed the beech's smooth gray bark with his long pink fingers.

Lori Ann blinked. She'd never seen someone touch a tree like this. It struck her as bizarre, almost perverse. The man kept stroking the bark of the tree as though petting a beloved animal. She averted her eyes to the cross.

"This is my Church," the man said again, and Lori Ann wished he'd stop speaking. She was feeling defensive, almost desperate, as if she were being inched toward the edge of a cliff.

To calm herself, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. The wind picked up, washing coolly and smoothly over her, and lifted her hair away from her ears. She took this moment as a benediction. She opened her eyes, and was startled to discover that the man was standing there with his own eyes closed. He was inhaling deeply, just as she had been moments before. This sight jolted her—exactly why, she couldn't say—and she looked up. She gasped. Clouds the size and color of elephants were striding across the orange sky. "My God," she said, and the fiery glow of the sunset filled her face.

She stared for a long time, and then dropped her eyes to the road. Five days ago, her daughter had died there. Two vehicles, a head-on collision. Simply an accident. God's will.

She looked at the tree, at the cross hanging by two nails, and stepped forward. She gave herself a moment, and then snatched the object down. She looked at the cross in her hands.

"Ma'am," Dan Carpenter said, but Lori Ann ignored him. She kept looking at the cross. Then, she flitted her eyes to the two nails lying in the dirt at the base of the tree. She pushed one with the toe of her shoe, and they made a dinky noise as they clanked against one another.

"Evening," Lori Ann said to the man, and she began walking to her car, the cross dangling limply from her left hand.

BIO: Michael Schrimper is a graduate of Indiana University's undergraduate Creative Writing program. His stories have appeared in The Crimson Umbrella Review, Bellow, The Zodiac Review, and Bartleby Snopes.