I pulled off the Florida interstate onto the road that led to my father’s town, to his small business, to his house that was really a trailer fitted with rusted metal skirting to hide the wheels, to the crematorium where he waited in what would be his last line. North of Tampa, somewhere between I-75 and the beach, my father’s children, my half-siblings, were surely gathered telling stories, making funeral arrangements and comforting their mother, a woman who was never my stepmother, just as my father was never my father.
I opened the sunroof and then pressed the button to roll down all of the windows all of the way. I turned off the music and stretched out my arm and let the night air pass through my fingers, soothing and tickling the space between each one, the humid salted air felt like pulling my hand through ocean water, catching nothing, feeling everything.
There were no other cars on the road so I let my eye wander to the fields around me. Did I see fireflies that time? Was that when I started crying? When I saw the fireflies? I didn’t know the way to my father’s house by heart, I’d have to pull over, turn on the interior lights, unfold my road atlas, and look closely for rural routes, but I couldn’t stop driving, couldn’t pull my arm back into the car, so I passed his town and continued toward the gulf. The Gulf of Mexico, now that was a familiar place that I knew well. I knew the jellyfish, the stingrays, and hammerhead sharks. I knew the warm swimming water, the quiet lighthouse beaches near Naples, and the t-top Camaro beaches in the panhandle. The compass said I was heading west, so I kept driving toward the shore, filled with relief that I could choose to wait one more day to begin this ending.
There were no billboard advertisements along the way, no rising fuel prices that usually came along with beach town fun. Instead, the moon fell behind the clouds and the night got darker. The air cooled, the wind picked up, and I could smell the ocean but I heard no waves. I stopped the car, not bothering to pull to the shoulder of the road, turned off the lights, and got out. There was nothing in the distance, only more darkness. I turned on the headlights and saw a green reflective sign that read “Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.”
I climbed back into the driver’s seat, reached for the map, and turned on the headlights. My eyes were blurry and slow to focus, I opened the road atlas, and from the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement on the right side of the road. I moved my foot to the brake and shifted the car into gear just in time to see a large golden cat step out of the woods and onto the asphalt, just a few feet in front of me.
The yellowish-white headlights surrounded the animal illuminating her slow walk, thick muscles, and sculpted jaw. Her large paws landed on the painted white lines, each long step bringing her closer to the driver’s side of the car. My heart pounded in my ears, I held my breath and shifted into reverse. The cat abruptly shifted her weight to her back legs, gathering power, preparing to pounce, she whipped her head around to face me and stopped. Our eyes connected, and in that instant eternity, I was flooded with fear and courage. We could have killed each other you know. She had her chance just moments before as I stood alone in the dark looking for the shore, and in that moment I had mine. I moved my foot to the gas pedal and let the car begin to back up slowly. She kept her eyes on me until she took her last step off the edge of the road, off of the pavement, and back to the wild earth.
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