Updated: Jan 5, 2021
For the next week, Parker was aware every hour of every day that nothing was happening.
They didn’t know what they had expected when they’d finally got a letter written and sent to their former teacher, but they had definitely expected something. It had seemed like it would be a catalyst to change, to moving forward, to somehow connecting with their parents.
In short, they had been stupid.
Maybe Ms. Rose had called their parents, maybe her wife was looking into Parker’s disappearance. The truth was that these maybes meant nothing to Parker’s actual life. They had no way of making contact with anyone who mattered to them. Basically, they were lonely and invisible and they couldn’t see how that was going to change.
The days were getting shorter and the nights were getting colder and Parker was not getting any closer to reclaiming their life. The only break they had had in the monotony of their existence was the night that Tiger had gotten beat up and Parker had helped bandage up his head, and hand. Tiger had said it was nothing, only a scratch, but four days later he was still moving gingerly.
“Now what?” Parker had mumbled to themselves when they had come by to check on Tiger and grab their night bag only to find a stranger sitting in Tiger’s usual spot.
Parker watched the stranger through the trees, staying low and out of sight. It couldn’t be a good thing that some unknown guy was sitting on Tiger’s stump like he owned the place. What if this was the guy who had left him broken and bleeding the other night? They scanned the area for any sign of a struggle, but couldn’t see anything except this guy sitting exactly where he shouldn’t be.
One thing about living in a world where everyone always had a mask on was that it was harder to gage someone’s expression. Right away though, Parker was sure that whoever this guy was, he wasn’t homeless. The man was dressed in a fitted grey toque with a black and green jacket, black pants and a brown bag that looked almost like a satchel. His clothes were not old, dirty or mismatched and his eyes were glued to what Parker would have bet was his phone in his gloved hand. As they watched, the guy got up, stretched and walked over to the river’s edge, walking so close to Tiger’s shelter that he nearly touched it.
This was odd.
In Parker’s experience, people had one of two reactions to a shelter that was clearly made by a homeless person. The first reaction was fear. People would notice the shelter and back away as though the shelter were going to reach out and bite them.
The second reaction, that luckily was less common, was disrespectful curiosity. People would kick at the shelter, peak inside, knock over personal items left nearby, but always with a kind of hostile aggression. Parker thought of the first reaction as people who were afraid that poverty was contagious and the second was people who were jerks.
They briefly wondered if this was a friend of Tiger’s, but just couldn’t quite imagine it.
“What’s up kid?” Tiger’s voice growled from just behind them.
Parker barely stifled a shout as they jumped and whirled around. “Could you not do that?” They hissed in irritation as Tiger chuckled. “Actually I was watching your visitor, trying to assess if there was going to be trouble.”
“Visitor?” Tiger asked his voice low and his gaze hardening.
Parker pointed towards the river, “Some guy, he’s been hanging around for awhile…” Their voice trailed off as Tiger walked away not even looking at them. Parker stood awkwardly wondering whether they should stay out of the way, or follow.
Tiger approached the man who was still facing the river like a cat stalking its prey. When he was a metre or so away, the other man whirled and the two faced each other, still and silent. Then, to Parker’s immense surprise they hugged.
Parker couldn’t make out the low words the two men were exchanging, but curiosity drew them closer. Now they really wanted to know who the mystery visitor could be. Up until that moment they would have had a hard time picturing Tiger hugging anyone.
The stranger looked curiously at Parker as they emerged from the trees. “You’ve got a visitor,” he said calmly nodding towards them with his chin.
Throwing a glance over his shoulder, Tiger waved them over, “that’s not a visitor, that’s Parker. Kid, this is my brother, Dakota.”
Parker smiled and then realized that no one could see their face under their mask and instead waved lamely and said, “Hey.”
Dakota wasn’t looking at them though, he had his eyes firmly affixed on his brother, “What do you mean not a visitor?”
Looking at Parker and then back at Dakota again. “It’s complicated.” Tiger muttered turning and walking over to sit on the log outside his shelter.
Without a second’s hesitation, his brother followed him, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just means it's not my story to tell.” Tiger said with a shrug.
“You’re not involved with…” Dakota’s voice started and then trailed off. “Christ Matt, she’s just a kid.”
Then, Tiger exploded. “What do you think of me!” he yelled, his eyes wide, Parker could swear they saw smoke coming out of his ears. “I’m helping the kid! I’m not some psycho!”
Tiger rocketed to his feet and stormed off back towards the water.
With a weary sigh, his brother sank onto the spot Tiger had just vacated. Parker stood awkwardly a few meters away wishing that they could just disappear.
“You been around here long?” Dakota asked looking up at them.
Parker shrugged. “It feels like a long time,” they answered honestly. “At least the nights are getting a lot colder.”
Both of them simultaneously glanced towards the river where Tiger was staring out at the Forks Market, his figure getting less and less distinct in the darkening night. It was so weird to be standing here, facing Tiger’s brother. There were a million questions running through Parker’s head, but they could not think of a polite way of asking why Dakota didn’t help Tiger get off the street. How could he live in a house somewhere and know that his own brother was freezing down by the river.
“Do you see much of Tiger?” They asked finally, thinking it was the least offensive of the questions that they had running through their mind.
Dakota made a non-committal kind of shrug and stared at the ground. “Visiting can be a bit difficult, we don’t always see eye-to-eye. I would help more,” he added defiantly, “but he just won’t let me.”
“You wanna help?” Tiger’s voice rang out unexpectedly behind them.
“You know I do.” Dakota mumbled his response not even looking at his brother.
“This might just be your lucky day.” Tiger answered.
“You mean it?” Dakota asked incredulously, “You’ll come and stay?”
Tiger’s mirthless laughter bounced off the rocks and echoed down the water, “You know I wont. I’m gonna stay right here in case my Jenni comes lookin’ for me. It isn’t me that needs your help anyways. I know you don’t believe it, but I’m fine. This is my home.” He paused for a second and then turned and fixed his eyes on Parker. “This kid on the other hand, needs a chance to have a life.”
“You a runaway?” Dakota asked, looking Parker from head to toe.
“Probably not in the way you are thinking.” Parker answered, but they were looking at Tiger. Was Tiger really saying what they thought he was saying?
“Kid, we don’t have a lot of options.” His tone was apologetic, “ I know you want to wait on your teacher, but winter is coming and things are only gonna get harder.”
The constriction in their throat felt like it was getting tighter by the moment. They weren’t sure if they were being strangled more by hope or by fear, or maybe both were tearing at them in equal measure. “What if he tells someone?” The words came out scarcely a whisper.
“I would trust him with my life. I think you have to trust him with yours.”
“Will one of you please tell me what the hell is going on?” Dakota’s voice was confused and pleading.
Sinking to the leaf covered ground, Parker leaned back, blew out a long breath and then turned to Dakota and started to tell their story.