The sky is shifting into the harsh gold of a late Florida afternoon as a semi comes wheezing into a Pilot truck stop just outside of Pensacola. The passenger side opens and a figure that seems to carry the dust of a western desert hops out, wiping black grease off her hands with an old rag and waving up to the driver as his driving partner sticks out a tattooed arm for a parting high-five. Taz hitches up her pack and glances down at her smartphone as it chimes an update notice.
“Summer camp, missing kids, Natalie, Northstar, bug spray. Got it.”
The elderly panhandler resting in the shade by the Arby’s drive-thru lifted a battered baseball cap in recognition, grinning through stained teeth as the ragged woman smiles back and passes him half her sandwich, dropping down beside him while they catch up on the latest vagabond news. An arrested look comes to his face as he suddenly remembers something, and he pulls out a tattered envelope with Taz’s name on it. She takes it without surprise, scanning the pages and nodding briefly. Twenty minutes later he gestures toward the state trooper pulling into the stop and nods goodbye as he melds into the longer shadows around the parked 18-wheelers.
A siren chirps and the cop car rolls up to Taz. A hard-faced woman steps out, but her features relax as she stoops down to chat, scrolling through photos of her kids, telling Taz how well they’ve been doing in school this year with their updated computers running so much better than before. Taz shows her an address and asks a question. The trooper nods, stands, gives the younger woman a hand up, and opens the side door of the police car, leaving Taz with it as she grabs some snacks and drinks from the convenience mart.
As they drive east, Taz rolls down the window and leans out, taking deep breaths of orange tree flowers from the highway-bracketed commercial grove as the scent rises up with the setting sun. She watches the waterfowl lifting up en masse from the River Stix, their reflections distorted in the water below, holding on to beauty as she moves closer to horror.