Spring 2023, Volume 34

Fiction by Julian Gallo

Cross on the Mountain

 Hed been on the road for nearly eighteen hours straight. The pills and coffee arent working anymore. As he speeds along the I-10, he keeps an eye out for a truck stop so he can pull over and get some much needed rest.

He turns on the radio, tries out a few different stations before settling on some classic rock, then turns up the volume.

The Southwest. He always loved this part of the country. Desert — sparse, dry, mountainous. He often thought of settling out here. The idea of living in a trailer in the middle of this desolate landscape always appealed to him. No neighbors. No rules. Freedom.

He always thought being on the road would offer the freedom he so desperately craves. Instead it offers nothing more than a bad back and endless, monotonous stretches of highway which could very well be anywhere.

Hes beginning to nod off again so he pops another pill, takes another sip of coffee, which has gone ice cold. Why it seems like it’s taking forever to reach the truck stop, he doesnt know. He peers in the side view mirror to be sure he hadt zoned out and missed it. He hadn’t, thank God, but he also notices that traffic is beginning to get much lighter, maybe one or two cars speeding past him, no more.

When he returns his attention to the road, he sees a young woman walking along side of the highway, about two hundred yards ahead. Not a bad looking girl from what he can tell, and the rucksack shes carrying is almost as big as she is. Shes dressed in a faded blue t-shirt and cut off denim shorts, revealing a pair of nice legs and a beautiful ass. A blue bandana covers a head of thick dreadlocks, blonde with a tinge of black. She has the dreadlocks tied back in a loose ponytail. Occasionally she turns to face the oncoming traffic, sticks out her thumb but she isnt having any luck. What was she doing out on the road at this time of night, he wonders, especially a young woman as nice looking as she is? He drives past her and when he looks in the side view mirror, he sees she s determined to keep moving forward, regardless of the fact that it will soon be dark. There arent any streetlights out here. No lights anywhere except for the headlights of the oncoming cars and trucks, which for some strange reason are growing increasingly few and far between. Unless she has a flashlight in that bag of hers, she wont be able to see a God damn thing, could wind up stepping in front of a speeding truck.

He decides to pull over to the side of the road. As soon as he does, he looks in the mirror and sees her running towards the truck, this tiny figure with a pair of nice legs slowly growing larger before his tired eyes. Normally he doesn’t pick up hitchhikers, though he had done so in the past. Most of the time he meets some real characters out on the road and he s a little reluctant to pick this girl up. Women can be just as crazy as the men, especially those out wandering the highways in the middle of nowhere.

As she approaches the truck, he tries to read her. She doesnt look like shes crazy but that doesn’t mean much of anything. She looks a little weird, sure, but a lot of kids do these days. Was she running away from somewhere, or was she just one of those free spirits hitchhiking across the country? Hard to say but he doesn t feel threatened. He has his old .45 in the cab, something he always takes with him, but this girl doesn t seem dangerous to him. He opens the door for her.

She peers up into the cab, her eyes probing him, trying to read him. He doesnt blame her, but he figures she thinks hes all right because she tosses her bag into the cab, climbs in and shuts the door.

Where you headed? he asks her as he pulls back onto the road. Not a single car, truck or anything, which he finds very strange.

She doesnt answer right away, choosing instead to look him over again. He just keeps his attention on the road, figures she ll talk when shes ready.

After about ten minutes of silence she says, California.

She has a pleasant voice and its clear from her accent that she’s from back east.

Well, Im not going that far, he says. Im only going as far as Phoenix. I have to be honest with you and say Im actually looking for the next truck stop. Been driving for hours and I need some rest. You can either come with me and go your own way from there or you can stay with me and Ill take you as far as Phoenix tomorrow. Its a nice place. Not luxurious or anything like that but it's clean.

She gives him a suspicious look, sizes him up. He keeps his focus on the road, on staying awake. Shit, if she wants to get out right then and there, hed be more than happy to oblige.

Ill spring for your own room, that is, he adds.

She doesnt say anything, looks straight ahead.

Okay, so shes thinking about it, he figures.

Names Horace, he says. Horace Farmer.

She ignores him. Okay, fine, be that way. Still, he feels better that shes with him and not out on the highway alone. Theres only another hour of daylight, if that. She smells nice too. He cant tell whether its some kind of perfume or if its the soap she uses but whatever it is, it indicates that she hasnt been sleeping out on the road for too long, if at all. He glances at her. Pretty girl, despite the strange hair. Big brown eyes, little button nose with a hoop ring through one nostril, a bit of eyeliner, nicely shaped lips. Shes a looker, this one. He wonders what her story is.

Nora, she says after a long silence. Nora Whittle. She looks at him, a hint of a smile on her lips. I appreciate the ride.

Much obliged, Nora. Normally I dont pick anyone up. Its against the rules. However, I couldnt very well let you be alone out there. Were close to the border out here and theres been a lot of bad things happening. Sometimes it spills over to our side. Im sure you ve heard about it all in the news.

She doesnt say anything, glances out the window. Hes tired of talking anyway so he figures its probably best.

Up ahead, the road is deserted, which again is very strange to him. He checks the side view mirror and sees there s no one behind them either. Just as well, he thought. He picks up a little speed, keeps an eye out for that damn truck stop. The sky looks beautiful, the sun setting just beyond the mountains. All he keeps thinking about is how beautiful it would be to watch that sunset every evening.

Whats that? Nora asks, pointing towards the mountain range on the horizon.

Mount Cristo Rey, he says. Its actually on the New Mexico side of the border, on the other side of the Rio Grande. Its known as The Christ of the Rockies . Its beautiful, isnt it?

When was it built?

Im not sure. Sometime in the 1930s, I reckon, not sure exactly when. I know it was built after some priest began to visualize a cross on top of that mountain, said he was divinely inspired. He took a group of pilgrims up there and he gave a sermon or something, vowed to have a cross erected up there. I guess he succeeded. I always look out for that whenever I pass through here. I feel like its protecting me in some way, looking out over the road here, keeping things safe.

She just nods, keeps staring at the cross, not saying a word. Hed expected her to say something, anything, but she just stays quiet, meditates on the cross on the mountain. He leaves her alone.

She doesnt look at him nor say another word for miles. Strange kid, this one, but hell, he doesnt want to judge her. He figures shes probably nervous being with him, a total stranger, but hell, hes trying to be friendly, right enough. It had gotten strangely quiet and for some reason, he begins to feel a little uneasy but isn't sure why, exactly. In fact, everything seems a little off at the moment. No cars on the highway, her strange silence, as if she isn't even sitting there, the color of the sky. Then he finally sees the sign for the truck stop. Just a few miles ahead.


He parks the truck and Nora grabs her bag and hops out of the cab. She stands there, looking around as if shes lost, confused. She looks up at the sky, the encroaching darkness now adding a purplish hue to the pink and orange. It seems kind of strange to Horace as well. He never seen the sky look like that before. Again, he feels a sense of unease which he cant explain.

Not a bad spot, he says, gesturing towards the motel. They have rooms available sometimes. It depends. If not, I just sleep in the truck.

Nora stares at the motel, then looks at him, more confused than ever.

Theres a little shop around back. I want to get something to eat. Are you hungry?

She stares at him, shakes her head.

Well, just in case, then.

He walks towards the shop, Nora walking beside him, not saying a word. If he hadnt looked her way hed never know shes there. She walks with a stealthy silence which unnerves him a little. No sound. Not even the sound of her backpack rustling up against her. She doesn t even walk like the bag is heavy, not leaning forward, no indication of the weight of the thing, but it looks full.

They enter the shop and he goes straight to the refrigerator where they have ready-made sandwiches.

Are you sure youre not hungry?

He sees the top of her head as she wanders up and down the aisles. She doesnt answer him so he figures he ought to get her a sandwich anyway, just in case. If she doesnt want it, he can always eat it on the road tomorrow.

He chooses two sandwiches, two bottles of Coke, and brings them to the counter but there isnt anyone behind it. He waits a moment, fishes a cigarette from his shirt pocket.

Can I have one? Nora asks, looking directly into his eyes, like a puppy begging for a treat.

He gives her one, lights it for her. She takes deep drags from it, as if she isnt a smoker, or perhaps shes one but hadnt had one in a long time. No one else is in the store. The clerk is nowhere to be seen. He calls out but no one answers. He steps to the door to see if perhaps someone is outside. 

Strange, isnt it? he says. Whod leave the store unattended like this?

Nora doesn t say anything, smokes her cigarette.

After about ten minutes he gets a little agitated, decides he isnt going to wait. He pulls a twenty from his wallet, leaves it on the counter.

Fuck it, he says. Lets go see about a room.

When they step into the office, he hears the radio playing some old country song and he intends to ask the clerk whether or not theyre aware that there isnt anyone minding the store but no one is behind the desk. The lights are on, the radio is playing, he figures perhaps the clerks in the bathroom. He calls out to let them know they have customers waiting. He doesnt worry about finding a room. There are plenty of keys on the rack behind the desk.

Why dont you go sit down, he says, gesturing toward the couch at the other end of the office. Give yourself a rest, put the bag down.

She takes the bag off her shoulders and drops it to the floor. Either that bag isnt as full as he thought it was or her size is a bit deceiving because she handles it like its full of feathers. She reaches for a magazine on the coffee table, glances at it, then puts it back. She then looks at the generic landscape painting on the wall across from her, stares at it with this look of utter confusion, as if she had never seen anything like it before.

Are you all right? he asks. Do you want a sandwich? I got a ham on rye with mustard and turkey with American cheese and mayo on wheat. Your choice, I dont care which one I have. Im starving. Ill eat this desk right now if I had to.


Either shes ignoring him or she doesnt hear him because she just keeps staring at that landscape painting as if it were something from another world. He wants to ask her what she finds so fascinating with the damn thing. After all, there are about a thousand other motels with the same damn painting hanging on its walls, he doesnt see whats so special about it.

No one comes to the counter. He calls out again. No answer.

Well, shit, he says. Aint that a kick in the ass. Where the hell is everyone?

He steps out of the office to look around. There arent any cars in the parking lot either. Just his truck, sitting there in the dark. There are no cars passing by on the highway either.

When he steps back inside, Nora is still staring at the painting.

You must really like that painting, huh?

She breaks out of her trance, looks at him and smiles, but doesnt say anything. Then she looks away, begins looking through the magazines again. He just watches her. What a fine looking young lady. There s something about her he likes although she does seem a bit odd. Maybe shes just shy, or nervous, not knowing what to expect from him.

He calls out again and when no one answers he steps into the room behind the counter, finds it vacant. When he comes back out, Nora s looking at him, again her expression registering confusion.

You know what? he says, leaning against the counter. I have no idea what the hells going on here but fuck it. Looks like were going to have to sleep in the truck.

Nora doesnt say anything, picks up her bag.

Theres a cabin above the cab with a mattress in it, he says. You can sleep there. Ill stretch out on the drivers seat.

Are you sure? she asks, again looking up at him with those puppy dog eyes.
Yeah, Ive done it before. No problem at all.

A little smile pulls at the corners of her lips and as she walks past him, she gently and momentarily lays her hand on his arm. He watches her as she walks out into the parking lot. A fine young thing, he thought. Must break a lot of young mens hearts.


She leaves her bag in the front between the driver and passenger seats and climbs up. A fine ass on her. Makes the sweat bead on his forehead just looking at her. When shes up, he offers her the sandwich he bought for her. She refuses it.

He closes the door, gets in on the driver s side, pushes the seat back and eats his sandwich, takes a couple of sips of Coke. It takes a while for him to fall asleep. He keeps thinking about Nora — who she was, where shed come from, where shes going, how and why shes hitchhiking across the country all by herself. He glances up at the cabin and sees she s already asleep. Poor thing, he thought. Must be exhausted from all that walking, from being out in that God damn sun for hours on end. He wonders where she would have slept had he not decided to pick her up.

Before he drifts off, again he notices that there isnt a soul around. No cars, no trucks, nothing. He keeps looking towards the motels office to see if theres any movement. Again, nothing. He has no idea whats going on but hes starting not to care one way or the other. After a few hours sleep he could move on. Hes sure that in the morning hed feel a lot better.


 He awakens to total silence and a slight pain in his lower back. Daylight has just begun to break over the horizon, Mount Cristo Rey coming into view. He sits there for a moment and just stares at it. What kind of crazy person would have such a vision in the first place to want to erect such a monument up there? How difficult it must have been to achieve. Nevertheless, he finds it beautiful, adds something special to the otherwise deserted landscape.

Hes beginning to feel a caffeine withdrawal headache and decides hes going to get a nice cup of hot coffee. He looks up into the cab and sees Nora is still fast asleep. He decides to leave her be and he quietly steps out of the truck. 

There are still no cars in the parking lot, no vehicles on the highway. Dead silence. Deserted, as if he and Nora are the only people left on earth. Again, he feels that strange sense of unease come over him. He stops, looks around. Nothing. He lights a cigarette and observes the highway. There has to be at least one car that will speed past at any moment, he thought. When one doesnt, he feels a chill run up his spine.


 After taking a leak behind the motel, he steps into the little shop and again finds no one inside. He calls out and thats when he sees his twenty dollars still sitting on the counter. Well, son of a bitch. He notices the door behind the counter, walks around and knocks. When no one answers, he opens it. No one.

Fuck it, he thought, and grabs two large cups and fills them with coffee, then heads for the door. Before stepping out, he grabs his twenty off the counter and tucks it behind his pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket. The hell with em. Thats what they get for leaving the place unattended.

Out of sheer morbid curiosity, he heads over to the motels office. Not a soul. The radio is still playing, the lights are still on, all the keys are still hanging on the racks. He calls out and when no one answers, he hightails it out of there, feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. As he quickly makes his way back to the truck, he still doesnt see a damn car or truck passing along the highway. Time to get the fuck out of Dodge. 

When he opens the door to the truck, Nora is climbing down from the cab.

Good morning, he says. I brought you a coffee.

He puts the coffees into the cup holders, clambers into his seat. Nora stretches into a yawn, reveals a bit more of that luscious body of hers while doing so. He tries not to stare but it isnt easy.

Sleep well?

Nora smiles, nods, sleep still in her eyes.

Well, we got a bit of a ways til Phoenix, he says. You might want to go to the bathroom while were here. Use the one in the office. No ones there.

She gives him a strange look.

Dont worry, I wont leave you here. Scouts honor.

He smiles as a way of reassuring her that he wont simply abandon her.

He watches her walk towards the office, her hips and ass swaying. Jesus, forgive me, he says to himself. He sips his coffee and it tastes all right, the usual swill one finds in a place like this. He feels a bit anxious as he waits for her to finish her business. He just wants to get on the road. Still not a soul around, still not one vehicle along the highway.

After about twenty minutes he gets even more anxious. Where the hell is she? Whats she doing? Perhaps shes cleaning up a bit, he thought, but when more than a half hour passes, he hops out of the truck to go see what the problem is.

He steps into the office and finds it still deserted, the radio now playing some evangelical pastors morning sermon. He calls out to Nora and when he gets no answer he walks over to the bathroom, knocks on the door. He must knock a half dozen times and still gets no answer. God, forgive me, he says to himself and tries the door. Nora isnt there.

He looks around the office, goes into the room behind the counter, no sign of her. Theres no way she could have gone back to the truck without him seeing her but he figures perhaps she went into the little store.

The store is still deserted and theres no sign of her.

He looked all around the motel, even tries opening the doors to the rooms to see if perhaps she decided to crash on one of the empty beds. Nothing — and no one else for that matter. All the rooms are unlocked, empty.

He heads back to the truck. She must have gone back there without him seeing her. He opens the door, half expecting to see her sitting in the passenger seat sipping her coffee but she isnt there, nor is she up in the cabin.

He sits there and waits. She has to be around somewhere. Her bag is still between their seats.

After another half hour passes, he decides he has to leave. He doesnt want to but he has a schedule to keep and if shed decided to wander off, well, theres nothing he can do about it. He turns the ignition, lets the engine warm up a bit but he knows hes only stalling for time. When she doesnt turn up, he puts the truck in gear and gets ready to pull out.

Before doing so, he eyes her rucksack. Why would she have gone off without her things, he wonders. Fuck it, hes going to see what the hell this girls story is. He takes hold of the bag, places it on his lap, and opens it.

Hed seen some strange things in his time but nothing beat what he finds in Noras bag. Nothing, that is nothing except for a wad of crumpled up newspapers, all in different languages — Spanish, English, French, Chinese, and Russian — all of it crammed into the bag. There isnt anything else. Nothing in the side pockets or in any of the other compartments. Freaked out, he rolls down the window and tosses the bag out into the parking lot. If shes around somewhere, shed need it. He puts the truck into gear and drives away.


 He must have been on the road for over an hour and there still hasnt been one single car or truck alongside him. He turns on the radio, again found some music as a distraction. Its a little after nine o clock in the morning and in the daylight the landscape looks quite different than it did during sundown. He still finds it beautiful, though he admits theres a more desolate feeling to the place without that colorful sky. He glances towards Mount Cristo Rey, the giant cross standing guard. He cant tell whether or not it's the sunlight but the cross appears illuminated, a bright light beaming from it, making it hard to look at. He has to look away, his eyes feeling as if theyd stared into the heart of the sun, leaving a remnant cross shaped light no matter where he looks, making it difficult to keep his eyes on the road. 

He thought about Nora, worried about her, and is on the verge of turning back for her but decides that its probably best to just forget her and move on. He has to be in Phoenix by tomorrow morning the latest. There isnt any time to go back. Still, he cant stop thinking about that girl and hopes she’s all right, whatever happened to her. Perhaps she was crazy after all and just ran off somewhere. He cant worry about it. He has a job to do.

He fiddles with the radio, finds a news station, and decides to leave it on for a while. More of the usual bullshit about politics, the war, the economy, and then a report about three unidentified bodies, all women, being discovered in the desert between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, two Mexican, one American. A sorry state of affairs. Someday someone will do something about that border.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a car speeds past him, changes lanes to get in front of him. Then another goes by. Then a truck.

He looks over at Mount Cristo Rey again, majestic against a cloudless blue sky. He says a prayer for Nora, hopes that shell be all right. 


New York City, February 2016




BIO: Julian Gallo is the author of Existential Labyrinths, Last Tondero in Paris, The Penguin and The Bird and other novels. His short fiction has appeared in The Sultan's Seal (Cairo), Exit Strata, Budget Press Review, Indie Ink, Short Fiction UK, P.S. I Love You, The Dope Fiend Daily, The Rye Whiskey Review, and Angles.