Parker didn’t realize that they couldn’t go back to their old spot on the river until they were actually looking at the swirling water. It wasn’t that they physically couldn’t get there, the walk would be an easy one; right down the walkway until they reached the Forks and then across the pedestrian bridge and down to the river’s edge. That was the problem. It was too easy.
There was no where to blend or to hide. It was a long, open path along the river and they couldn’t afford the exposure. In the other direction, even if it was less familiar, at least there were trees and forest. It made the most sense for them to be where they could be invisible.
They felt an aching in their body that had nothing to do with their exhaustion or their injuries. The truth was that they really didn’t want to be invisible anymore. All they wanted was someone to take care of them, they didn't want to be brave anymore. They weren’t a daring, intrepid adventurer off to overthrow the system and conquer the world. Omar, their best friend, was more like that. When they were little, Omar had loved super heroes, staying up late and going exploring. Parker on the other hand had loved reading, building Lego and watching TV. Playing soccer in the snow or playing multiplayer video games with strangers (which they were absolutely not allowed to do) was about as adventurous as Parker ever got.
Maybe if Omar were here he would know how to see this as an adventure, maybe he would know how to keep warm and find food. It wasn’t that Parker would ever wish this on their best friend, they wouldn't even wish this one someone they hated. It was honestly more that if Omar were here, then Parker wouldn’t be alone.
Tears fell hot and fast down their cheeks and they didn’t even try to stop them. Dakota, Esme, Tiger, Mom and Dad, were all in some kind of danger now and it was their fault. Stumbling a little, they walked over to the bushes beside the path, pushed themselves in and curled up on the ground cuddling their new backpack as though it were a teddy bear. None of the thoughts that passed through their mind were comforting. It would probably be best if they were to give themselves up to the Authority, at least then no one else would get hurt because of them. With this haunting thought in mind, they eventually fell into fitful sleep.
Parker walked the riverbank in a daze. They alternated between worrying about the people they loved and feeling sorry for themselves (especially when they spent their birthday alone and shivering, trying to avoid the drizzle that fell steadily from the sky). Coming up with a plan was impossible. What options did they have left? Over and over they thought of just going home. Showing up on their doorstep and at least getting to see their parents briefly before the Authority hauled them away. The problem was that they couldn’t stop wondering what would happen to their parents after they were gone. The Authority couldn’t really just leave them alone if they knew that they’d seen Parker.
Survive. That was it. That was all they could manage for now. They found a place halfway between the river and a community centre where they could hide in the foliage and protect themselves from the cold. So far, it wasn’t the cold that was going to kill them. Dehydration and starvation were at least as dangerous as the Authority. Whereas they could avoid the Authority, their thirst and hunger followed them wherever they went. They rationed the snack packs and water that Jazz and Elliot had given them. Then they rationed the sandwich, muffin and water bottles that they’d stolen off some construction workers. But, it wasn’t enough. Never enough. Tiger had taught Parker about outdoor taps, but he hadn’t taught them what to do when the taps were all shut off for the winter. If only there had been more time to learn
survival from Tiger.
Water was something they had always taken for granted. Then again, they could make a long list of things they had always taken for granted. Water, toothbrush, shower, bed, roof, heat, food, clothes… the list was too long. It didn’t help to think about all the things they didn’t have. Instead they needed to focus on what they knew how to do. They knew how to wade through disgusting piles of other people's garbage in hope of finding sustenance. Dumpster diving was their hope for the immediate future. If they had to eat out of the trash, it made sense to start where they had found the most success. They would start at the Golden Falafel.
Deciding to go to the Golden Falafel and actually getting there were two totally separate things. When they’d travelled the river before, they had always been on the south side and although there had been occasional foot traffic, it had been easy to avoid people. The north side of the river was a whole other story. They debated for a while about whether they could pull off just walking along the river path in the middle of the day as though they weren’t a fugitive, hoping they blended in enough not to get noticed. This would have been a great plan if they looked older. Most people were well practiced at ignoring homeless people and if Parker looked like an adult they could probably get to the Forks and back without much more than a furtive glance. But, Parker didn’t look like an adult. Even though they had just turned fourteen, Parker was more likely to pass for a third grader than a kid in junior high. They were pretty sure that wearing two filthy hoodies and a grubby pair of jeans didn’t improve their chances of not getting noticed.
This ruled out the day, but middle of the night also didn’t really appeal to them. They were very aware that they weren’t the only desperate, homeless person skulking around by the river. They hadn’t forgotten how easily those teenaged boys had thrown them around and pinned them down. It was useless to deny to themselves that they were an easy target.
Early morning was the only other thing they could think of. The couple of hours before the sun rose were usually the quietest and most peaceful. They told themselves that they would aim for around 5 am, which was kind of funny since they had no way of actually telling time.
“What’re you doing? This is my station!” A ragged looking man came stumbling down out of the darkness onto the riverwalk. Parker looked up from the half-full water bottle they’d just pulled from the trash in surprise and embarrassment.
“I didn’t know,” they said, taking a step back. “I was thirsty.”
The man lunged forward knocking Parker to the ground. He loomed above them yelling wildly,
“What else have you taken from me?! Stop following me!”
Without looking back, Parker rolled over, jumped to their feet and was running before the man could get in another swing at them. They ran until the shouts had faded behind them, then dropped gasping for breath onto one of the benches. “That went well.” they panted to themselves as they doubled over, trying to catch their breath.
Not for the first time, they wondered how they’d been so lucky as to land on Tiger’s territory instead of someone else’s. What if that guy had been the one that Parker had first met when they’d pulled their kayak ashore? Would they have even survived the night? They knew that Tiger wasn’t perfect. Dakota said he was a binge alcoholic. This was part of the reason that Tiger had such a hard time getting off the streets. He’d be alright for awhile, but Dakota said when he started drinking, he would drink away every penny that he had and then pass out for a day or two. Living on the streets gave him a lot less access to alcohol, but Parker was sure there had to be a better way of staying sober.
It was true that Tiger was impulsive, moody and unpredictable, but he was also kindhearted, selfless and giving. He had given Parker, food, water, friendship and in a weird way, a home. They would never forget how he had saved them from that group of boys, how he had screamed out his warning about the Authority, even as they were taking him away.
Parker ached all over, inside and out. They didn’t know what was worse, the pain in their stomach from hunger, the pain in their side from where they’d hit the ground, or the pain in their heart from the weight of their loneliness. “There’s no time for a pity fest.” they grumbled to themselves and then wondered when they’d gotten in the habit of speaking out loud. It didn’t seem like a good habit. They wondered if people became homeless because they were mentally ill, or if people became mentally ill because they were homeless. In their mind, they wanted to think that they could be strong like Tiger, but in reality they didn’t know how long it would be until this life drove them crazy.
The Golden Falafel sat cold and dark, the first rays of the sun hadn’t yet reached this corner of the street. Right away Parker searched the dumpster for food from the day before and came up empty handed. Disappointed, they settled themselves in the dried, dead grass around the base of the trees behind the lane across from the dumpster and prepared to wait. Mostly, their life consisted of waiting these days. Last time, the garbage had gone out in the afternoon, they hoped desperately that this was a daily occurrence.
While they waited, they pulled a book out of their backpack. It was almost funny that they had a book to read when they didn’t have food, water or a home. Whoever came up with Little Free Libraries should consider coming up with Little Free Pantries or Little Free Water Coolers too. They smiled down at the battered copy of the Hobbit, (which had seemed more appealing than the other bestseller novels and self-help books that had been in the library), knowing that their parents would be happy that they were putting their time to good use, reading one of the classics.
Just when they thought they really might die of hunger, the backdoor to the Golden Falafel finally opened. Parker vaulted themselves to their feet and stumbled across the lane before looking up and realizing that this was definitely not stealthy or subtle. The man with the garbage bag stood frozen half in and half out of the building. With the mask on it was hard for Parker to know if the man was the same one as last time, but they thought it probably was. They stood there and stared at each other for what felt like a long time. Then, slowly, the man raised one of his hands in a stop sign gesture to Parker. Parker wasn’t at all sure what the man was trying to say, but they took a step back and raised their hand in an awkward half wave.
“Wait.” The man said, grabbing the door with his free hand and backing into his restaurant. “You, wait.”
“What? Why?” Parker yelled back, but it was too late, the man had disappeared back inside. Feeling like an idiot, Parker crept slowly towards the back of the restaurant. Should they wait? What if the guy was calling the police to report them? What exactly were they waiting for? Parker paced back and forth for a few minutes their stomach aching and their mind racing. Finally, just when they decided to grab the bag of garbage and run, the door opened again. The man looked around for Parker and his eyes softened when he spotted them.
“Please.” the man said softly, gesturing to a paper bag that he placed carefully on the ground before again retreating inside the building.
Tentatively Parker walked over and picked up the paper bag that was heavy and warm to the touch. They cradled the bag like a treasure, hugging its warmth to their body. With an almost giddy excitement, they opened the bag and were overwhelmed by a wave of gratitude. Inside there was a giant falafel sandwich, teeming with lettuce and tomatoes and a drizzle of sauce. It was packed on top of what looked like another equally big wrap. Tucked into the side of the bag was a bottle of iced tea.
Parker’s tears dripped onto the bag as they closed it tightly. This time, the tears were not tears of loneliness or self-pity. Instead of sapping their will to go on, these tears gave them a boost of hope. They were alone, but they weren’t invisible. This man had seen them and cared enough to make them a fresh bag of food. Parker didn’t know if the man had any idea of what he had given them. It wasn’t just a bag of falafels, it was a reminder that there was good in the world. A reminder that there was a reason to keep going, not to give up. With these thoughts burning like a small flame in their heart, they turned and raced back towards the river.