“So, you want me to uncover the truth and take down the Authority?” Dakota asked after sitting as still as a statue through Parker’s entire story.
The most honest part of Parker wanted to scream yes, but they checked themselves and answered, “If you could just tell my parents that I’m alive.” Parker’s voice cracked and threatened to be swallowed in their throat.”I just want them to know…”
Dakota took a slow breath. “How much do you want them to know?”
“I want them to know everything, I want to be able-”
Tiger’s voice cut in, “Not everything.” Parker’s mouth continued to move, but their words had disappeared. “Sorry kid, we gotta act like the Authority is watching. They can’t know where you are now”
Parker glared at Tiger, but Dakota cut in before they could really think what they wanted to say. “So, I call your parents and tell them that their daughter escaped the Authority and is alive?”
The word daughter stuck in Parker’s mind, like an arrow in the ground. “Daughter?” They asked angrily. “Do I look like a girl to you?” As soon as the words were out of their mouth, they knew it was a stupid question. They didn’t look in the mirror much even when life was normal, now, they really had no idea what they looked like at all. Obviously if Dakota thought they were a girl, that was what they looked like to him.
Dakota stared at Tiger who shrugged and then looked at the ground. “Sorry,” he said awkwardly, “I didn’t know you were a boy.”
This time Parker took a deep breath before answering. “I’m not.” They reminded themselves for the millionth time that it wasn’t people’s fault if they didn’t know that there was life beyond boy and girl. “I’m non-binary, gender fluid. It means I’m not a boy or a girl. I’m somewhere in between.” They had never been very good at putting words to their identity. Being different didn’t make them an expert in differences.
Neither of the brothers moved or looked at them and then Tiger laughed uncomfortably.
“Was that same as Jenni?” Dakota’s voice was small and Tiger’s laugh stopped instantly.
In the next few moments, Parker watched a range of emotions flit across Tiger’s eyes. First they thought he was going to erupt in rage, then it seemed he might laugh again and finally his eyes became red rimmed and overbright. He dropped his head and let out a long breath. “I don’t know. She never explained.” He turned and looked out at the river, “or I never listened.”
Parker wondered if Jenni had been like them. Maybe that was why Tiger had taken care of them, maybe Tiger was ready to listen now.
“Ok Parker, I don’t have much time.” Dakota was suddenly all business. “I need a picture of you, but we have to choose a spot with nothing identifying, I’ll get just a head shot.” He paused and they both looked around as Tiger continued to stare out at the water. “Then you’re going to tell me everything and anything that might be helpful in getting in contact with your parents. Where they live, work, kind of car, anything that might help me get in contact with them without leading the Authority to you. Then I got to get home before my wife sends out a search party of her own.”
When Parker awoke the next morning, tucked in the corner of an unused shed on the riverside of some giant property, they almost wondered if their meeting with Dakota had been a dream. Five days. Dakota had promised in five days he would come back and give Parker an update. This time they would meet under the Provencher Bridge around sundown. Parker knew the time didn’t really matter, they would be hiding in the rocks waiting all day. They tried to remind themselves that an update didn’t mean that all their problems would be solved, but it didn’t matter. This time there was real, actual tangible hope and they were going to savour it as much as they could.
They tried to imagine the look on their parents’ faces when they saw that Parker was alive. If only they’d asked Dakota if he could bring them a picture of their parents too. Loads of people had died in this pandemic, what if their parents weren’t even there to find?
Parker shook themselves, almost violently causing them to drop their bag of sleeping stuff as they made their way along the rocks towards Tiger’s shelter. They couldn’t think that way. There just wasn’t room in their head to believe that their parents might be dead. The most affected by the pandemic were kids and old people, their parents didn’t fit into either category. They both worked in accounting, they led boring and safe lives. Their parents were fine. They had to be.
“Get out of it!” The scream was so loud, that it tore them out of their haunting thoughts. The voice was unmistakably Tiger’s and he was obviously in trouble. Parker redoubled their speed, slipping along the loose ground, trying to stay hidden as much as they could.
“I don’t care if you’re the Authority!” The words hit Parker like an avalanche and they dropped to the ground, heart pounding and limbs quaking. “Who made you the Authority!” Without a doubt, Parker knew that Tiger was yelling like a madman to warn them not to come closer. They couldn’t hear any reply to Tiger’s yells of outrage and they couldn’t see anything because of the trees and bushes that grew densely between them. They heard Tiger yell and swear a few more times. Always using the word Authority. Each time the word hit Parker like a physical blow. They wanted to curl into the fetal position and disappear into the ground.
A ringing silence descended on the river and it was somehow more horrible and terrifying than Tiger’s shouts. Parker launched themselves to their feet and staggered blindly away from the only safety they had known. They didn’t bother to wipe the tears from their eyes, they just moved as fast and stealthily as they could. They knew they couldn’t stay on the river. Climbing blindly, they went up further onto one of the giant riverfront properties than they ever had before. There was a large clump of evergreen bushes that they had never had the guts to try hiding in, but if ever there was a time to find a new hiding spot, it was now. Ignoring the fear that the house owners would pick this moment to look out their back windows, they ran the rest of the way and dived amongst the green needles. The rough foliage and sharp twigs tore at their skin and clothes as they pushed themself into the bush and lay panting and crying on the ground.
What had happened to Tiger? Would he ever forgive them for running away? Tiger would never have run off and left them in trouble. Even as they lay on the ground hating themselves, they knew that Tiger would have wanted them to run. He wasn’t yelling randomly in rage, he was yelling as a warning, he was yelling about the Authority. Knowing this didn’t make things better. It didn’t change the fact that they had abandoned Tiger.
Another thought swept through Parker with such a terrible shock that it stole their breath and their tears. Did Dakota report them to the Authority? It seemed like too much of a coincidence that last night he was here and now suddenly the Authority had found them. Parker wrestled with the thought, like a small child they covered their ears and curled tighter into a ball as though they could get away from the doubts inside their mind.
It was the longest day that Parker could remember ever having. They were thirsty, hungry and wracked by guilt and doubt. What if Tiger had been beaten and left there alone bleeding all day because they had run away? Over and over they turned different scenarios in their mind. They knew, without a doubt, that if Dakota had turned them in then going back to the shelter was walking right into the Authority’s hands. They knew it, and yet they couldn’t leave without seeing if Tiger was ok. There was just no part of them that felt like abandoning him was the right thing to do.
Creeping back towards Tiger’s shelter, Parker was light headed and shaky. With every step they strained their ears, pulling off their touque so that there was nothing to block the sound. A cartoon image of a giant rope net flashed through their mind as they jumped at every shadow. What kind of trap would the Authority set? Parker didn’t know. Not knowing what they were walking into was more terrifying than each of the scenarios that they could think of.
As they approached, they slowed their pace more and more, practically crawling along, listening for any sign of an ambush or an injured Tiger. And then, they saw it.
Or rather, they didn’t see it.
They crept closer to be sure, but as they approached the familiar clump of trees there could be no doubt.
Tiger’s whole shelter was gone. There were some gouge marks on the ground and some broken branches and scattered leaves, but nothing remained of Tiger’s home. Parker was completely alone.