Parker could still hear the echo of Tiger’s yells as they sat up in bed and looked around wildly, their heart pounding and sweat plastering their newly cut hair to their face. Only a dream they told themselves slumping back on their pillow. Panic ebbing away even as fear stayed firmly lodged in their chest.
It was hard to believe that they had been living at Dakota’s house for almost a week already. Even harder to realize that Tiger had been missing for almost two. Parker felt an extra jab of guilt when they thought about how easy their life had been since they were plucked off the streets. They had had a bed to sleep in. An actual bed in a room where they could turn on and off the light at will. Not being a prisoner or homeless was nothing short of luxurious.
Esme, Dakota’s wife, had taken to them instantly. She was a tall, imposing figure who’s dark black skin shone with fury when she heard Parker’s story.
“How could you leave a child out there in this weather? Dakota, what were you thinking?” Dakota had shrugged apologetically and muttered something about Tiger while Esme had folded Parker into a hug so genuine and warm that it somehow managed not to be awkward even though she was really a total stranger. “You are staying right here until we can fix this business.” She had held them at arm's length, her large, dark eyes shimmering with tears. “You go get washed now.” She smiled and patted their cheek before turning to walk to the kitchen.
It was the longest shower Parker had ever had in their life. They were amazed and disgusted to see the water run grey and brown as they washed their body over and over again. A month’s worth of dirt, sweat and grime swirled down the bath drain. A month that had felt like a lifetime.
Dakota had gone out that night and gotten Parker some clothes that fit and a toothbrush while Esme had fed Parker until they thought they would explode. Parker had said thank you so many times that they felt like a broken record, it all seemed too much. It had been so long since they had felt the impact of human kindness.
The memory brought a smile to Parker’s face and a tug to their chest. Being in a house where they were cared for made them miss their parents more than they thought possible. It was as though now that they didn’t have to spend every moment worried about surviving, they instead had to deal with fears and memories that were sharp, painful and hard to navigate. For the first time since they escaped, they allowed themselves to think about the kids that they had left behind. Were any of them still alive? It wasn’t just their life they were fighting for, it was those kids, it was all of those families who were fragmented because of the Authority.
They thought about their best friend, Omar and even some of the kids they played soccer with. It was funny that they were able to miss kids that they never even really liked. They thought about their parents, cousins and grandparents. And Tiger. Even though they hadn’t known Tiger long, they knew they owed him their life. Tiger wasn’t always easy, but without him they wouldn’t have stood a chance. They didn’t have any idea why the Authority had taken Tiger, but they owed it to him to find out.
Being in Dakota’s home, thoughts of Tiger were never far away. Dakota loved to tell stories about when he and Tiger were kids, mostly they were funny stories, but every now and then he dipped a little deeper.
“Tiger was what our mom called him,” Dakota had told Parker with a sad smile after dinner one night while they were talking. “He was the protector of the family, back when my daddy used to come around. I was a baby when he left for good. Story is that Matt hit him over the head with a frying pan while he was strangling mom. She always called him Tiger after that.”
“Why don’t you call him Tiger?” Parker had asked.
“I don’t know,” Dakota had answered thoughtfully, “He was never Tiger to me and the cousins. With us he was just Matt.”
Parker wondered about that for a long time as they fell asleep that night. They knew from personal experience that names were a powerful thing and they wondered if Tiger had chosen to be called by his nickname, or if it was just the persona that he had learned to live.
“You’re home?” Parker said in surprise when they came downstairs to find both Esme and Dakota sitting at the counter in the kitchen.
“It’s Sunday honey,” Esme said tying her braids back and out of her face, “Neither of us works today.”
Parker stood awkwardly in the doorway of the kitchen staring at the floor. Up until that moment, they had somehow blocked out the scene they had caused the night before. Shame washed over them and they wished they could disappear into the floor.
“Come have breakfast honey, no one’s angry at you.” Parker wanted to believe her words, but the shouting from the night before still echoed in their mind.
“I can’t just sit around forever doing nothing!” They had shouted at Dakota after hearing one too many times that they needed to be patient. “My dad could be dead by the time you do anything! Nothing’s going to change by doing nothing.”
At first, Dakota had stayed calm, which had just made Parker’s fury that much worse. They had knocked over an end table and sent some books flying. “Tiger’s out there too you know. Don’t you even care about that?”
They had gone on and on. Parker had never felt a rage like that before. It was as if they were outside themselves, their ears were ringing and they felt reckless and out of control. Just thinking about their behaviour caused them to blush so deep that they felt like their face would melt. The memory felt like a wound, ugly and hard to look at. They didn’t know what they had said that had finally caused Dakota to lose his temper. It was something they hoped they never did again.
If Esme hadn’t been there, Parker was sure they would be out on the streets. After their behaviour the night before, that was maybe what they deserved.
“I’m sorry.” Parker said in barely a whisper.
Esme nudged Dakota who looked up from his cereal for the first time. “Forget it.”
Forgetting about it sounded just about impossible, but Parker was happy to pretend that everything was normal.
“I dropped a letter off at your house this morning.” Dakota said into his cereal bowl.
Parker looked up and stared open mouthed at Dakota’s back. “Really?” They asked, hardly daring to believe.
Dakota looked at them for the first time. “Esme and me talked about it after, you know. Well, we couldn’t really see any other way. You were right in that nothing is going to change on its own.”
“Did you see my mom?”
“Sorry Parker, all I saw was the mail slot on your front door. I parked a few blocks away, had my mask on and my hood up.” Dakota shrugged, “I don’t know if they have some kind of surveillance on the house, I didn’t see anything.”
Silence filled the room as Parker tried to digest the idea that their mom knew they were alive; for sure this time. “What did you say in the letter?”
“It wasn’t too long. I said how you’d been taken by the Authority and had managed to escape. I told them you were safe now, and that you missed them a lot. I put the picture I took of you by the river in with the letter so they would know it was real.” Dakota stared into the milk at the bottom of the cereal bowl. “That’s about it.”
Parker felt their heart sink a little, “What happens now?” They didn’t know if they could deal with more just sitting and waiting. Great that their mom knew they were alive, but how were they ever going to get their life back.
“In two days I’ll go back, I told her to put an answer under her welcome mat and I would pick it up before 6 am.” Dakota finally looked up at them, “There’s no way to do this fast, Parker. I know you hate it, but you are going to have to be patient.”
“I know.” Parker answered automatically, but they did feel better knowing there would be an answer. At least this time they would hear something.
“We also have to consider some more security now.” Esme said, patting their cheek gently. “We don’t know what the Authority will get up to if they saw Dakota and find us here.”
Any warm feelings that Parker was kindling about their family died in an instant. “I’m sorry,” they sputtered, “ I didn’t want to put you in danger.”
“Honey, we are worried for you, not for us.” Esme said in exasperation and Dakota nodded looking Parker in the eye.
“Nothing might happen, but if something does, we need to be prepared.” Dakota’s voice was deadly serious. “I hope you aren’t afraid of heights.” He said with the hint of a smile.
“Heights?” Parker looked from one to the other in bewilderment.
“This is the second floor. If they come for you, they will come up the stairs and maybe up the fire escape, but you will go out the window in the hall.”
“The window in the hall.” Parker repeated both terrified at the possibility and touched that the two of them had obviously spent the night coming up with a plan.
Dakota nodded again and got to his feet, rubbing his red rimmed eyes. “We have a collapsible fire ladder that I’m going to teach you to use today. We will leave it set up and keep the footstool that’s usually in the living room nearby. From now on when you get dressed, put your shoes on too, we don’t want you on the run in your socks.”
“Do you really think they’ll come for me?” Parker felt like they were in some action hero movie. Could this happen in real life?
“Child, we don’t know what they will do, it’s best to be ready just in case.” Esme said handing them a cereal bowl, her usually bright eyes shrouded with worry.
“Ok,” Parker said weakly as they poured cereal into the bowl almost in a trance, “I’ll be ready, just in case.”