“I think it might be time for some popcorn.” Esme tossed her novel aside as she stood up and stretched.
Parker smiled up at her from their game of Minecraft. “I won’t say no to that!”
Esme’s popcorn was sweet and spicy, almost like a full decadent meal. It came dripping with butter and mixed with roasted peanuts, just the sound of her getting the ingredients together caused Parker to start salivating. They had grown up in a house where their mom had made popcorn with barely a trace of butter and a hint of salt. The popcorn they’d known before was a little like styrofoam in comparison to Esme’s creation.
“Parker!” The panic in Esme’s voice snapped them out of their revelry. “Parker! Get out now! I saw them out the back window. They’re coming.”
The tablet slid out of Parker’s hands and hit the floor. Terror shot through their body propelling them across the room, into the hallway and out the window.
“Be safe honey, we love you.” They heard the hoarsely whispered words from overhead as the window closed soundlessly.
They’re coming. The words twirled around and around in Parker’s mind. They wished they could ask Esme what she’d seen. They felt like a hunted animal hiding from an unseen predator. They’re coming. Parker was on the ground now leaning up against the building trying to find their breath. They’re coming.
They took a deep breath and pulled their hood up over their head shivering as the October wind sent a few straggling leaves to the ground. With fumbling fingers they found the mask that was shoved carelessly in their back pocket and put it on. Straining they listened for any sound that might tell them what was happening. They clung to the hope that Esme would call them back. Maybe she’d just seen a moving van or something. How could the Authority have found them?
There was a crash and a loud clang from the parking lot behind the building and Parker shot off and away as though the sound had been a starting pistol in a race. First they crawled under the scraggly bushes and then climbed over the low metal fence separating their building from the next. A car door slammed somewhere and muffled shouts echoed behind them.
A voice in their head told them not to run, but the surging roar of adrenaline had seized them and they moved as though their life depended upon it. They couldn’t look back, they couldn’t think.
All they could do was run.
Time ceased to exist as they moved through the night. Sweat coated their face and back, their chest ached and their throat burned with every breath that they forced in and out. They weaved in and out of the shadows, head down, blind to everything except the step in front of them. All they could do was keep moving until they skidded around the corner of a dark street and ran right into a parked car. They bounced off the hood and lay in a crumpled heap on the ground. Furious pain gripped them and they curled into a ball, injured arm against their chest, their other hand clutching their throbbing head. They couldn’t even find enough breath to swear. All that existed was blinding pain and exhaustion. It filled every pore of their body like a leaden weight.
Voices and footsteps echoed down the alley and somehow Parker stumbled to their feet. They were terrified of the Authority, but they were also aware that they didn’t want to meet anyone else who spent their time in dark allies in the dead of night. Their legs wobbled, their head and right arm throbbed as though they were on fire, they weren’t running this time, but they were moving again.
The real question was to where? The streets in this area were all dark and winding, Parker didn’t recognize anything anymore. They were completely lost. As the night closed in around them, they peered at street signs, hoping to see something that was familiar. It was all wrong. They should have crossed Main St by now but instead it seemed like dreary city streets stretched on endlessly.
The sweat that had coated their body was now icy cold and they fought to keep their teeth from chattering as they moved down more unfamiliar streets. They crouched behind dumpsters and in doorways anytime a car went past, trying to ignore their pain and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Was the Authority following them? There was no way to know. They had no plan, no thought other than to keep moving and somehow survive until morning.
Up ahead of them they spotted a white van parked under a streetlight in an empty church parking lot and froze. There were definitely voices somewhere up ahead. Too exhausted to run, they pushed back into the shadows, wedging themselves between a dilapidated fence and an electric pole. It was the Authority. They were almost sure of it. They could see the back of the boxy van and hear faint voices. Why were they waiting here? Parker tried to take a breath, their head pounded so hard that they couldn’t think. They kept their eyes glued to the van. It didn’t make sense that the Authority would just be sitting in this parking lot. If they knew Parker was coming, why weren’t they after them. If they didn’t know, why would they be sitting in an abandoned parking lot in the middle of nowhere? They tugged their hood off of their ear, wincing as it brushed against their battered head. Footsteps were coming closer and suddenly there was a dark figure at the back of the van, opening the backdoors, leaning in out of sight. “How many pairs of socks?” The figure called out to someone out of sight.
“Socks?” Parker repeated in an almost inaudible whisper. Relief flooded their aching body, they almost laughed out loud as their eyes were blurry with tears. They knew that voice, even knew that van. It wasn’t the Authority. This was the van that drove around helping homeless kids. This was their first glimmer of hope. With a huge effort, they climbed back to their feet and quietly made their way towards the van.
Time slowed to an almost standstill as Parker watched the Ray workers grab a few more things from the van and hand them out to the unseen people in the shadows beyond. Could they really risk asking these people for help? It wasn’t exactly like the last time when they had needed pen, paper and an envelope. This time they were being hunted, this time they didn’t even know what they needed.
“Elliot?” Parker called out the name before they even really knew what they were doing.
Elliot was standing at the driver door under the streetlight, squinting in their direction. “Hello?”
Without even really deciding to, Parker walked forward into the light. “I need help.” They said in a whisper.
A gasp escaped Elliot’s lips, “What happened?”
“They’re after me. I didn’t do anything wrong, you have to believe me. I think they’ll kill me if they find me. Please, help me, I don’t know what to do.” The words poured out of Parker’s mouth like water from a tap.
“Slow down friend,” Elliot said, still staring at Parker wide-eyed. Parker rubbed their face self consciously and realized that what they thought was sweat, was actually blood.
“What’s up?” The other worker came around the side of the van and stopped short when she saw Parker. “First aid kit?” She asked in a gentle voice.
“No, really, no, I’m fine.” Parker stammered, “Well, I’m not fine, but I just need to hide. This is just blood, but if they catch me, then I’m dead. Dead.” Parker felt like an idiot, but they didn’t know what to say, or how to explain. All they knew was that they somehow had to make these people understand. They didn’t want to die without seeing their parents again. Really, they didn’t want to die at all.
“We can give you a place to chill for a couple hours, but you got to stay down and quiet.” Elliot said motioning to the back of the van.
“Elliot.” The other worker shook her head, warning in her voice.
“Sorry Jaz,” Elliot said, opening the back and clearing a space in amongst their boxes of supplies, “I’m calling safety on this one.”
Jaz didn’t look thrilled, but nodded briefly, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” she said while helping him shift a few things around. “We have to patch up that head wound first.” She insisted tugging off her mittens and instead pulling on vinyl gloves, “I don’t want you to get blood on all the socks.””
A few minutes later, Parker was crammed behind the front seats in between boxes and under a shower of blankets and socks. They drifted in and out of consciousness as the van moved from place to place. Neither Jaz nor Elliot spoke to them and they almost felt like they were in some bizarre dream.
“Are you still alive back there? Helloooo?” With a start, Parker realized that Jaz was talking to them.
“I’m alive.” they answered groggily.
“Why’s the Authority looking for you?” Elliot asked his voice soft, but heavy with concern.
A jolt of fear brought Parker fully awake. “Are they here?” they asked, trying to squeeze themselves into a tighter ball.
“No one’s here except us.” Jaz answered, “But we’ve been asked about you a few times tonight.”
“If I tell you anything, it’ll just put you in danger.” Parker thought of Esme and Dakota, they wondered if they were alright.
“Kid, we just hid you and lied for you, I think the danger part has already happened.” Jaz sounded more amused than annoyed somehow.
“I’m sorry,” Parker said, and they meant it, “It’s a really long story and you probably wouldn’t believe it. I lived it and I don’t know if I believe it.” A noise escaped Parker that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
“Maybe try us out.” Elliot said gently.
Taking a deep breath, Parker tried to put together the shortest version of their story. “I was kidnapped by the Authority. They were using me and lots of other kids to do some tests, I don’t really know why. They told us we were super spreaders of the paravirus. Lots of kids died. I managed to escape, but they tracked me down and now…”
There was silence in the van. Parker wondered if the other two thought they were crazy. They found that honestly they didn’t care that much. Jaz and Elliot had hidden them from the Authority and given them a warm, safe place to rest. It might even be better if they didn’t believe them. They didn’t want to think that they were putting more people in danger.
“What can we do to help?” Jaz asked finally, pulling Parker back to the present.
Parker hated to ask for anything more from them, but they knew that they were in no condition to be proud. “I could use food, water, a blanket and of course some socks.” they said, sounding more sad than funny. “Also, can you drop me somewhere near the river?”
“Yup, yup, yup and yup,” Elliot said in a falsely chipper voice as they got out of the driver’s seat and opened the back of the van. “We’re at the back of the Leg right now. Assiniboine river is here, if you want the Red River, you’ll have to walk back to the Forks.”
With a great effort, Parker peeled themselves from the warm, cramped back of the van and into the dark, cold street. Elliot handed them a full backpack and a bottle of water and they stammered their thanks over and over.
“It’ll be light in a couple hours,” Jaz said with a yawn. “Good luck…”
“Parker,” Parker suddenly wanted these strangers to know their name, they wanted for a moment not to be erased or invisible, they wanted to be seen.
“Good luck Parker.”
Without another word Parker threw the backpack over their left shoulder and ran off down towards the river.