“Is that a picture of Jenni?” Parker asked as the open laptop’s screensaver flicked through some random pictures.
Esme looked over and smiled sadly. “Sure is.”
Parker stared at the dark brown eyes and short cropped hair. “I can see why you all think she looks like me.” Feature by feature they didn’t look alike, but there was something in their overall style that was similar. The sort of look that a lot of people associated with being gay, (although Parker could never figure out how they could be gay or straight if they were non-binary to begin with.)
“I didn’t know Jenni well, me and Dakota were only dating when she ran away. But, that girl sure didn’t have an easy life.” The picture on the screen changed to Dakota and Esme laughing, but in their mind’s eye, Parker could still see Jenni.
“She lived with Tiger by the river?” Parker asked, although they couldn’t quite imagine Tiger’s shelter as a family home.
“Dakota could tell you the story better than me.” Esme said glancing towards their bedroom door where Dakota was already tucked in for the night as he had work early in the morning. “I think they were sometimes in housing and sometimes not. I never met Jenni’s mom, Alona, but I think that any stability that child knew died with her mama.”
Parker sat and stared at the images on the screen. They wondered what had happened to Jenni, it was because of Jenni that Tiger had taken an interest in Parker. It was because of Jenni that Parker was still alive.
Monday, both Esme and Dakota worked and Parker paced the rooms like a lion in a cage. The hours crawled by and although Parker tried playing video games and reading, nothing could really hold their attention. They wanted so desperately to have word from their parents that their insides ached with longing. It was hard to say exactly what they hoped to hear in the letter. Obviously, they wanted to hear that their dad was ok. They could hardly even think of him as being in the hospital, he never even caught a cold in the wintertime.
Although they wouldn’t admit it to anyone, what they fantasized about most was their mom saying that they could go home. It was impossible. They knew it was impossible, but that didn’t stop them from wanting it. If anyone in the world was going to make things right, it would be their mom. She was not a bossy or a pushy person, but she was someone who quietly took charge and got things done. If anyone could do the impossible, it was her.
When they finally started to keep track of the days again, they were startled to realize how close it was to their birthday. Time had been strange and slippery in the last year. Suddenly, it was the middle of October and they would be fourteen in just a few days. For reasons that even they didn’t fully understand, they hadn’t told Dakota and Esme about their birthday. The thought of them trying to make the day special brought a lump into their throat. If they couldn’t be home by the 19th then they would just save their celebration. Having a birthday without their parents was too hard to imagine.
The rattle of the keys at the door caused them to jump a foot and scramble over to the window. Dakota saw them standing on the stepping stool and nodded approvingly as he came in.
“Just me,” he said with a smile.
“Good,” they said jumping down off the stool and brushing their hair out of their eyes. The haircut Esme had given them refused to cooperate, but still, they were grateful to have it short again.
Dakota who worked in dispatch at a long distance trucking company instantly launched into a story about something stupid one of the drivers had done. The story was hard for Parker to follow, but they were so glad for the distraction that they listened attentively to every word. A couple hours later, Esme came home and shooed them out of the kitchen where they were making pasta for dinner.
“What did you put in this sauce?” She asked Dakota as she stirred it disapprovingly.
“Nothing,” he answered defensively, “that’s just how it comes out of the jar.”
Parker thought they heard her mumble, “well that’s the problem then.” Before her cooking sounds were drowned out by the TV.
“What do you th-” Dakota started to ask when he was cut off by a short, crisp knock at the door.
For the second time that day, Parker sprung to the window, but this time they threw it open and with barely a second to register the panic on Dakota’s face, unhooked the collapsible ladder and started their slow steady climb to the ground.
“Coming!” They heard Esme shout as the window slid closed. They didn’t look up. All of their focus was just on getting down the ladder that swung slightly from side to side. The ground was there before they were ready and they collided with it and rolled sideways into the shadow of the building. Panting in fear they pulled themselves to their feet and leaned against the rough stone wondering which way to go.
“Parker, honey?” Esme’s voice sang in relief from overhead.
“Yeah?” Parker answered hesitantly. This was definitely not part of the plan they had talked about.
“It was a false alarm darling, Dakota’s coming down to get you. Just make your way around to the front of the building.” The window slid down again and she was gone.
False alarm? Parker wondered, heart still pounding and hands still shaking. It was a pandemic, who else was knocking at the door?
Dakota gave them a one-armed hug when they appeared around the side of the condo. “Building manager,” he said with a shaky laugh, “water might be shut off tomorrow between 2-4pm for some maintenance.”
Parker opened their mouth to speak and then closed it again. They pulled a deep calming breath into their lungs and looked around, overwhelmed by the unneeded flow of adrenalin through their body. This was the first time they had been outside since Dakota and Esme had taken them in. The street facing the building was pretty busy and Parker realized that if it hadn’t been a false alarm they wouldn’t even have known what direction to run. They didn’t really know this part of the city at all. Without the river they were lost amidst winding streets and dark alleys. Dakota who had already gone back into the building turned and looked quizzically at Parker. “Coming?” he asked.
“Could we maybe walk around the area a bit?” Parker said quietly and Dakota looked at them as though they had pink flamingos coming out of their head.
“That doesn’t seem like a very good idea. Esme’s waiting for us, it’s dinner time.” Nodding, Parker followed him in fighting down a wave of panic. There was no one in the lobby which was a good thing since Parker had forgotten to grab their mask. In one motion, Dakota steered them to the staircase without a word.
A sigh escaped Esme’s lips as she hugged first Parker, then Dakota and then Parker again. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take my heart to settle back in my chest.” she said, leaning on the doorway where she’d been waiting.
Parker gently disentangled themselves from Esme and looked at Dakota who was flustered but trying to act calm. “I forgot my mask.” This would be a big problem if they were on the run.
“Maybe have one in your pocket all the time.” Dakota said, picking up a mask and handing it to Parker.
“Thanks.” Parker said automatically, tucking it in the front of their jeans. The uneasiness in the room was heavy, each one of them trapped in their mind’s worst case scenario. “Dakota, if that had been the Authority,” Parker finally said, panic fluttering in their chest, “I would have had no idea where to go. I don’t even know where we are.”
Dakota nodded slowly and deliberately. “A walk is a bit risky. We’re just in the Exchange District, not far from Princess St.”
“Isn’t that downtown?” The Exchange District was a familiar name to Parker, but they didn’t think they had ever actually been there.
Rubbing his face wearily Dakota said, “Ok, a short walk after dinner. Good for you to know where to go.”
As Parker nodded their head, they knew they were both thinking the same thing. Even if they knew the area, where did they have to go? If the Authority came and Parker had to run, then it wouldn’t really matter where they went. There would be no Tiger this time. They would be on their own against the Authority.
They felt like they’d only been asleep for fifteen minutes when there was a knock on their door. Blearily looking around their room, they tried to shake off the remnants of their bad dream. “Hello?” the word whispered like a question into the dark of the room. Had they really heard something.
“Parker?” came Dakota’s soft voice through the door. “I have your mom’s letter here.”
Without even thinking, Parker leapt out of bed and wrenched open the door. “What did it say? Is dad ok?” The effects of the fitful night of terrible sleep were suddenly forgotten and Parker was fully alert, breathless with anticipation.
“I didn’t read it,” Dakota said, handing them the envelope, “I thought you would want to be the first.”
Gingerly, Parker took the letter into their hands and started to pry open the envelope. The truth was that they didn’t want to be the first to read their mom’s words. It would be easier to have Dakota be the buffer, just in case the words were too much. Just seeing their mom’s slanted writing instantly brought tears to Parker’s eyes and they wiped them with a shaky hand as they read the letter.
Hello Mr. Dakota,
This is the strangest letter I have ever written. I apologize now if it is awkward, it’s hard to know what to say to a man who is caring for my child. First of course, thank you for your kindness. Enclosing a picture of Parker was the most lovely thing you could have done for us. I have probably looked at that picture a thousand times and I know I will have it with me every second until Parker is home again.
Mr. Dakota, I know it will seem strange, but I have little I can say right now. We are very ordinary people, but we are working to rise to the level of extraordinary necessary to bring Parker home.
I think that you are putting yourself in danger by visiting our home. I don’t think you should risk another trip. If you stay current you will know when the time is right for us to meet.
Before I sign off, I do need you to ask Parker if they know where they were being held during their imprisonment. Even a very vague understanding could be so very important. Please create a new email address and send me this info (to my work address) from a public computer. Stay as safe as you are able.
Please, tell Parker we love them and that their dad is back at home and recovering.
We will always be thankful for your kindness and generosity,
“Dad’s home.” Parker said letting out the breath they’d been holding and handing the letter over to Dakota. “I don’t know what the rest of it even means.”
A hint of a smile played around Dakota’s mouth as he looked up at Parker. “It means this time, something is happening.”