Taz peeks over the edge of the building. The street is empty, the sun reflecting off the asphalt nearly blinding. He picks a fleck of mud off his jeans and backs away from the edge.
Missy sits against an air conditioning unit that’s sputtering away in the noon day heat.
“Nothing,” he nods below. “We’re good to bounce.”
Missy smiles, and pats the backpack next to her, “Gucci.”
It’s full of stuff from the Quick Stop, random things, snatched quickly and without discrimination. Canned green beans, a pack of gum, mouthwash, chocolate bars, Top Ramen, an iPhone charger, Tylenol, chips.
Missy is wearing a black hoodie sweatshirt despite the heat. Taz has never seen her take it off in the year he’s known her.
They make their way down from the roof and pick their way through the city. It’s hot and everyone who can manage it is inside. Cars move slowly over the blazing asphalt. Taz and Missy stay in the shadows. The houses they pass are beautiful, ornate affairs gone to seed in a heavy way. Yards overgrown with tires, broken bikes and spent appliances. Windows covered with cardboard and plywood and panties and boxers.
They dodge the nicer neighborhoods, with the condominiums and the water park, and get to the trail. The trail hugs a deep valley, which drops down to a river below. They walk along, sweating in the heat, until finally they reach the woods.
They aren’t real woods, or at least not woods in the way Taz has seen in pictures and movies, dark deep woods where animals live and you can walk for hours without seeing the sky. The only animals living in these woods are Taz and Missy and the occasional feral dog with wild eyes and saggy balls. These are thin woods full of rusted metal and glass. But, deep in the middle, there is a place that feels clean. Green soft moss grows there and four or five pines are legit, big and wide and full of color. If you squint it looks like a real-deal forest, Taz thinks.
Taz found this place a few months back and he’s spent every night there since.
Taz and Missy are always careful that no one has followed them. A spot like this is a rare and beautiful thing in their world and they don’t want to share.
They drop their bags and settle in. It’s a simple routine. Taz strings their hammocks up between the two biggest trees, heads facing each other. Missy unpacks and hides whatever goods they’ve got, sprinkling them throughout the woods near camp. Never a good idea to have too much stuff on hand.
“It’s too hot,” Missy wipes her brow smudging dirt underneath her left eye. Taz thinks it looks like the mascara women at the mall wear, dark and rich.
“What are you looking at?” she’s squinting at him, her ratty bangs falling over her face.
Missy is thin and pale. Taz knows underneath her sweatshirt she has scars up and down her arms and legs. Taz knows many things about Missy, and Missy knows many things about Taz.
“You got some muddy stuff under your eye,” he gestures.
She wipes vigorously with the back of her hand, smearing the dirt around, rubbing it in and evening it out.
“Stop lurking, perv.”
She’s beautiful, Taz thinks.
The day’s heat starts to dissipate. They don’t talk much as they eat the chips and the chocolate bars snagged from the QuickStop. The wind whistles through the wavering trees. They can see the moon rising as the sun settles. A few stars appear.
Taz lies down and closes his eyes. The crazy thoughts of pre-sleep rambling through his head.
We will get jobs and buy a house together. A house with a yard and trees, and she will have a bottomless purse, with fingered gloves …
He sleeps and the wind-touched woods whisper.
- - -
He wakes suddenly. The wind is gone and the night is quiet. A train sounds far off. He has goosebumps.
He sits up. He sees Missy’s form weighting the hammock, gently rocking. He hears her snoring. She’s always snoring. He swings out of his hammock and walks off into the woods to piss. He must have woken because he had to piss, he thinks.
He pisses. Standing there, the darkness staring back at him, he’s half-awake when he hears the voices.
“Over here,” the voice is low and male. “Bring it over here.”
He can’t tell exactly where the voice is coming from, but it sounds as if it’s close to their camp, coming down from the trail, maybe? He drops down and starts to scurry away.
But then he thinks, Missy. She’s still sleeping. She’s a heavy sleeper, she won’t hear them until it’s too late.
He darts back, toward the voices. Every inch of his street-rat body urging him to run.
Missy is important. So he cuts in between the voices and Missy. He’s there, she’s sleeping, he’s by her side, hand over her mouth, then shaking her and not speaking. Her muscles tighten and her eyes fly open. She sees him and relaxes. He removes his hand and beckons for her and they dart into the woods, leaving their hammocks hanging.
His heart is racing, partly from the fear but also because of the trust he saw in her eyes.
They are hiding now between the thin trees. The voice continues.
“… good spot in here, hard to get to, no one will find it.”
Missy and Taz are lying on their stomachs when they see three forms emerge from the darkness and step into the opening. The two larger forms are supporting the smaller. The smaller form is ricocheting between the two like a tortured pin ball stuck endlessly between paddles. But then, one shape moves and the middle one falls heavily to the ground.
The two larger forms laugh.
“Gone, gone, gone,” one kicks the slumped shape. “Stupid jerk.”
The men turn and stumble through the underbrush and thickets out the way they came. Soon the woods are silent.
Taz and Missy don’t move. There are any number of reasons this body could have ended up in their woods. None of those reasons are good.
After nearly an hour, in which the body hasn’t moved, they inch forward until they can make out details of the face. It’s a young man. Bloodied face, a broken nose, he’s missing chunks of hair. Not a professional job. Taz breathes a sigh of relief. A professional wouldn’t have dumped a body so close to everything. If they had been professionals it would have meant much bigger trouble for Taz and Missy.
The man is on his stomach, his head turned so his cheek is resting on the dirt, they roll him onto his back and search his pockets. He has no wallet, and no identification. Taz stares at his face. He looks like a strung-out junkie, thin with dark wild hair. His pale skin is visible through holes in his torn shirt.
Missy leans down and places her ear to his chest and shakes her head. Then she presses her pointer and middle finger gently down on the man’s neck, just like the paramedics do.
“He’s pumpin’,” she looks up. “He’s alive!”
She’s smiling big now and Taz’s heart sinks. That is very bad news, as far as he’s concerned, first that the man is alive and second that she’s happy about it.
“What are we going to do? Where we going to take him?”
“If we take him, or move him anywhere, we gotta leave this spot, you know that?”
Taz is looking at Missy, trying to make out her eyes in the dark. She nods.
“We gotta do something, Taz. This guy’s a hunk of junk but he’s still alive. We can’t just leave him.”
Missy is too sweet for the world in which they live.
Taz hoists the man up over his shoulder, while Missy helps lift his legs off the ground. The man is wasted and dried up from the drugs, so he’s not heavy. Still, trudging through the night, uphill, Taz is panting, sweat pouring off him. The man doesn’t move or make a noise. But he’s still alive the few times they stop and check.
Finally, they crest the hill. The sun will be up soon. They’re in a nice neighborhood. A new fancy development dug out of the remnants of a lumber yard and seeded with money.
They lay the body on the curb. Missy takes her black hoodie off and drapes it gently over the man. He will be found quickly in a neighborhood like this.
The two of them drop back into the valley.
“Thanks Taz,” Missy is saying. “I don’t think I could handle that on my brain, just leaving that man somewhere to die.” Taz’s shirt is covered in blood. He pulls it off and buries it. The two get back to camp.
“We gotta go,” Taz says turning toward Missy. She looks surprised.
Missy is too sweet for the world in which they live.
Lead photo credit: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn