Parker’s stomach squirmed and flopped as they stared blankly ahead listening to the sound of the splattering rain on the bridge above them and wondering if Dakota would show.
Even now, days after Tiger and his entire shelter had disappeared, hauled away by the Authority, Parker still couldn’t decide if it could actually be a coincidence. Was it possible that the Authority had just happened to show up the morning after they had told Dakota everything? On the other hand, if the Authority knew that Parker was there, why hadn’t they come back for them?
Why had they taken Tiger?
At first, Parker thought the Authority might try to blackmail them or somehow use Tiger to get to them. It was what would happen in a movie. Surely if Dakota had ratted them out, the Authority would do whatever it could to get ahold of them. They had watched the spot where Tiger’s shelter had been for hours at a time, waiting for some sign that the Authority was coming, something that would help to make Tiger’s disappearance make sense.
That first day, all Parker had done was worry and writhe in guilt about Tiger. The second day reality had set in and Parker had realized that it wasn’t just Tiger that they had lost, it was their extra clothes, food, water, soap, toothbrush. They had had very little to lose, but what they had had was crucial to their survival. Now, they couldn’t afford to be lost in their misery. Starving was a very real possibility, they couldn’t afford inaction. There was no one to take care of them anymore.
The day after this realization had been spent in and out of dumpsters and garbage bins. The first few hours had been smelly, disgusting and useless. Parker was sure there was an art to dumpster diving, but they definitely hadn’t mastered it. The dumpster behind the grocery store was the best place to go, but they couldn’t go there during the day and they thought they might actually pass out if they didn’t eat soon. Then, they had come upon the Golden Falafel.
It was a small restaurant sandwiched between a chiropractor and a convenience store. The cook was putting their garbage out just as Parker was creeping down the alley. As he was about to dump his bag of garbage into the big dumpster he saw Parker and set the bag gently down beside the bin before disappearing back into the restaurant through the backdoor.
It was a lifesaver. Inside the bag there were napkins, disposable cups and a few other pieces of trash, but there was also a big, paper bag filled with slightly stale flatbread and a mountain of cold falafel. Parker didn’t know if the old falafel were really the best thing they had ever tasted, but just the fried parsley smell that wafted out when they had opened the bag had been enough to bring tears of joy to their eyes. They had eaten until they were full for the first time in months and still had enough food to save for the next day.
The sound of footsteps brought Parker back to their cramped achy body and they leaned out of their hiding spot amongst the metal bridge supports to see a couple huddled under an umbrella tossing a few rocks into the river. They sighed, definitely not Dakota. Then again, they weren’t really expecting him for a few more hours. The sky was dark with clouds, but even Parker couldn’t delude themselves into thinking it was nearing nightfall.
The truth was that right now, Dakota was their one glimmer of hope. They couldn’t go home, they couldn’t go to a shelter, they couldn’t go to school or the media. The Authority was a constant danger, but starving and freezing to death weren’t far behind. Not to mention the pandemic. The pandemic added an extra level of confusion to everything, but mostly Parker was removed from the reality of it because they were removed from any contact with other people.
When they had been taken from school, the pandemic was a fear and a rumour, but there were no known cases in Winnipeg. They had been told over and over that they were a superspreader and that they couldn’t be released because they would be risking the lives of everyone they loved. Now, they knew that most of what they had been told had been a lie, it was tricky to remember that some of it had been true.
Other than the occasional bus trip or dumpster dive, Parker’s one link to the world was Tiger. For the millionth time Parker wondered why they had taken him.
As the couple’s footsteps faded away, Parker unfolded themselves from their hiding spot and stretched their achy body. They needed to walk, to move, to do something. Sitting and waiting was making them crazy.
“Parker?” The voice was soft and uncertain, but that didn’t stop Parker from jumping a mile into the air and letting out a muffled scream. “Sorry, I was trying not to startle you.”
He was there. Parker felt their emotions ripple and swirl in their stomach. “D-Dakota, you-you’re early.” The words leaked out of their mouth in a shaky stutter as they stumbled on the rocks.
“I got off work early. Are you okay?” Dakota asked, his brow furrowed in concern. “Where’s Matt?
“My brother.” It was hard for Parker to think of Tiger as being called Matt, it was like being told that a shark was actually called a petunia.
Parker spat the words out before they had time to think about them. “He’s gone. The Authority took him.”
“What?” Dakota looked up and down the river as though Tiger was playing some game of hide and seek. “That doesn’t make sense. How do you know?”
“I heard it happen,” with guilt ripping at their stomach, Parker told Dakota exactly what had happened, exactly how they had run away.
“But why?” Dakota asked, lowering themselves to sit on the damp rocks under the railbridge, his head in his hands.
“I didn’t know what to do, I panicked and I knew he was trying to warn me. I just-”
“Parker.” Dakota cut them off, his voice sharp but not angry, “I’m not asking why you ran. I’m glad you ran. Tiger would have killed you if you had stuck around. There was nothing you could have done.”
Before they could stop themselves, tears started to cascade down Parker’s cheeks. They knew what Dakota was saying was true, they just needed to hear it more than maybe they’d ever needed to hear anything before.
“But, why would they take Matt?”
Parker didn’t speak for a moment, but rubbed at their wet face with their disgustingly dirty sleeve. “At first,” they said hesitantly, “I thought you had called them.”
Dakota looked up in shock, “Me?”
“It was the morning after you had been here and then suddenly the Authority had found us…” Parker’s words trailed away. Now that they were actually standing face to face with Dakota, they couldn’t imagine him turning them in.
“Never.” Dakota said, shaking his head, “I would never.”
The splattering rain blew in at them and Parker shivered a little. They had been waiting days to see Dakota, days to hear about their family. “So, did you see them?” Their voice sounded small and scared even in their own ears.
“What?” Dakota looked up distracted and then he reddened a little. “I’m sorry Parker, this news just threw me.” He took a deep breath as though he were about to jump into a pool. “I couldn’t get a hold of your parents.”
Parker’s whole body sagged and they barely felt like they could stay standing.
“It’s not that I didn’t try, it’s just really tricky right now.” He took another breath and Parker’s blood felt like it was running cold. “I’m sorry Parker but your dad’s in hospital with the paravirus and your mom’s in isolation.”
“No.” Parker said softly and this time their legs did give out completely. Dakota grabbed them awkwardly, saving their head from making contact with the rocks.
“I tried to get a hold of them at work because I thought that would be least likely to attract the Authority’s attention, but neither of them were at work. I had to call a few times, but eventually I got enough of the story.” He reached down and put his hand on Parker’s shoulder. “I couldn’t get much info about your dad, but I know your mom isn’t sick, just in isolation as a precaution.”
Parker tried to think of something they could say, but the best they could do was, “Oh.”
“I was going to ask Tiger what I should do next, but now…” They both stared at the river, lost in their own thoughts. “Parker, you can’t stay here anymore.” Dakota blurted out the words as though he had been holding them back.
“What?” Parker asked scared and confused, “I have nowhere else to go.”
“You do.” Dakota said reassuringly, “You’re going to come home with me.”
Parker looked up in surprise, “Home, with you?”
“No one will think to look for you at our house. No one would even guess that we had a connection. We have a spare room and we’ll figure something out. You, you just can’t stay here.” Dakota’s look was almost pleading and Parker could barely suppress a laugh. They didn’t need convincing, exactly zero percent of them wanted to stay fighting to survive alone on the edge of the river.
“What will your wife say?” Parker asked when they found their voice again.
“It’ll take a bit of explaining and I’m sure she’ll give me hell for leaving you out here for five days longer than you needed to be.” Dakota stood and offered Parker his hand. “This is all so crazy, and I can’t tell you that it’ll all be fine, but at least I can give you a bed to sleep in. And a shower.”
Parker nodded and followed Dakota as he led them away from the river. The idea that Tiger was missing, that their parents were sick or quarantined was too hard to even try to wrap their head around. Instead they thought about a shower and an actual bed. Instead they let themselves feel for a moment like they were not alone.