Parker woke up from the best sleep they’d had since they’d left Dakota and Esme. Maybe it was because they had a full stomach, or maybe it was because they were sleeping in the spot Tiger had found for them when they had first dragged themselves off the river. Whatever it was, they were thankful to at least feel somewhat rested.
Reluctantly they pulled the covers back off their head and gaped around at the transformation that the world had undergone while they were sleeping. Everything was white. Snowflakes fell almost lazily from the sky, but they must have fallen heavily during the night as trees were dressed in fluffy white coats and the ground all around them held a fat blanket of snow.
“It’s too early for snow!” they growled to themselves, trying to swallow down a rising feeling of panic. It wasn’t really the snow that worried them, but snow was an undeniable sign that winter was coming. How were they going to survive the winter? Up until then they hadn’t wanted to think about it. A voice in their head had reassured them that some years there wasn’t snow until December. This had been a false comfort. It was true that climate change had brought more and more unpredictable weather to the prairies. Each year the weather seemed to yo-yo between higher highs and lower lows. This meant that it was possible to have a day that was 15C in December, but it also meant that the next day could be -45C.
No matter what Parker wanted to believe, the norm was still that winter was cold. Most nights between November and March were going to be in the minuses with at least a few weeks of -40C or worse. Snow, they could handle, it could even be helpful to protect them from the wind. -40C on the other hand seemed unmanageable even when they weren’t homeless. Living along the riverbank with no jacket, snow pants or boots, they would be dead long before the weather ever had the chance to get that cold.
Parker sat up huddled in their blankets and pulled their mask out of their pocket and put it on. This was now how they got ready for the day. Nothing as luxurious as a shower, change of clothes, brushing teeth or getting out of bed existed for them. The difference between day and night was mask, or no mask.
Rubbing sleep from their eyes, they pulled the last few stale falafel balls out of the front pocket of their bag and then fished around for the couple of empty water bottles they were carrying. Snow was made up of more air than water. They knew that eating it wasn’t good because it would pretty much freeze them from the inside out. But, at least if they filled their bottles and managed to warm the snow up enough to melt it then they would have something to drink later on. Something was better than nothing.
No matter how much Parker hated to admit it, they needed help. The most obvious answer they could think of was to visit the Ray workers again. Going back to Dakota and Esme’s was impossible, they didn’t even have any clear idea of how to get to their building. Going home was as impossible as ever. If anyone were able to help them, it would be Elliot and Jaz. Their whole job was to help kids living on the street. They had to be able to give Parker some info about how to survive the winter. Maybe they could help them get some winter clothes. Maybe they could leave them a snack bag and some water bottles stashed in the bushes by the Legislative Buildings a couple times a week. They knew that this was part of their regular route, so it wasn’t a question of asking them to go out of their way. It was more a question of their personal safety.
Parker knew that anyone who helped them was in danger.
Tiger had helped them and was taken by the Authority. Dakota and Esme had their house ambushed and Parker had no idea what had happened to them. There was also the question of their parents. They had no way of knowing if the Authority had targeted their parents, but their mom was definitely planning something, which meant that she wasn’t safe. A shudder made its way down their spine. They just needed their parents to be ok.
Still, they wanted to live.
It wasn’t such a crazy thing to want was it? They had just turned fourteen and it had been by far the worst birthday of their life. Alone, cold and hungry hiding on the riverbank, they hadn’t even wished themselves a happy birthday, what was the point? They didn’t want that birthday to be their last. Maybe if their contact with Elliot and Jaz was really limited then they would be safe? It wasn’t like they were wanting to be best friends with them, it was really just part of them doing their job.
The wind blew the snow in their face and they pulled the slightly stiff tinfoil style blanket up over their head. Listening to the snow hit their little shelter, they remembered a time when they had been camping with their parents in a hail storm and they had all huddled together staring at the roof of the tent, wondering if it would hold. Afterwards, they had worked together to patch up the many little tears that the hailstones had left with a roll of silver duct tape. Their mom had joked that they were duct tape pioneers. Maybe Elliot and Jaz could get them a roll of duct tape? The memory was warm and soothing. They tried to hold it close to their chest to keep out the cold that was pelting their shelter. There wasn’t a choice, that night they would visit the Ray van. It was a matter of survival.
They moved softly along the river towards the pedestrian pathway carefully planning each step in the dark. Anxiety coursed through their body and their legs trembled slightly as they mentally planned their route up through the city towards Old Market Square where they hoped to find the van. This wasn’t the first time they’d been out in the city since the Authority had ambushed them at Dakota and Esme’s house. But, in their heart they knew that their short daytime jaunts to dig through garbage and beg at the Golden Falafel didn’t really compare to what they were going to do now.
The Authority wasn’t stupid, they would know that Parker was alive and know that if they were going to stay alive, they would need help. They were pretty sure that the Health Authority probably knew all of the homeless organizations in the city. Wouldn’t they be monitoring the Ray van? Parker couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were working themselves into a corner in this crazy game of survival that they were unwillingly playing. It felt like showing up, looking for handouts was giving the Authority their chance to yell, “Check mate!”
Then again, how much people power was the Authority really going to spend on one kid? They couldn’t be watching every corner of the city at once.
“Treasures?” A man hissed at them out of the darkness and Parker jumped a foot in the air.
“No.” they managed to squeak out the word. They were pretty sure that treasures was the name of some kind of street drug. Whether this guy was looking to sell it, or buy it, Parker wasn’t sure, all they knew is that they didn’t want any part of it. To their enormous relief the man continued on his silent tread, crossed the street and disappeared into the night. Feeling a little lightheaded, Parker continued on up Main St. It seemed unfair that they didn’t just have to avoid freezing, starving, dehydrating and the Authority, but they also had to manage to not run into anyone else who was dangerous or unbalanced. If only they could call a timeout every now and then, just to catch their breath.
The streets were busier than they had seen before, both with car and foot traffic. Parker grimaced to themselves, it must be the weekend. Then, they stopped dead in their tracks, their heart pounding in their chest. Just up ahead of them, in the bushes was a figure all in black. Parker stepped back swallowing a scream. The figure towered above them with red glowing eyes! It was impossible, they blinked hard and yet it was still there. Maybe this was a nightmare and they just needed to wake up. Minutes passed and Parker stood frozen in fear staring at the black shape that strangely hadn’t moved an inch. The fabric of the hood rippled a bit in the breeze, but the red eyes didn’t blink. Parker looked around to try to get their bearings and saw that there was a skeleton hanging in the tree and a giant spider’s web that ran all along the top of the bushes.
“I’m such an idiot!” They muttered to themselves pulling their mask down for a second to get a full breath of air. It was almost impossible to believe that something as normal as Halloween could still be happening, but as they looked around, the decorations left little doubt. Taking another few steps forward, they stood in front of the dark hooded figure with the glowing eyes and started to laugh. Once they started laughing, they couldn’t stop. Of all the things that they could be worried about, the one that scared them so much that they almost wet themselves was a cheap Halloween monster.
Laughter shook their body until their throat was dry and their chest ached. The laughter gave way to a strange emptiness that weighed them down as they turned to walk up the street. A funny story didn’t mean anything if there was no one to share it with. Hands deep in the pocket of their hoodie, they picked up their pace eager to get to Old Market Square and back again.
Signs of Halloween were all around now that they were paying attention and they wondered if there would be any kids trick or treating this year. Last year, Parker and Omar had dressed up like Minecraft characters and given out candy to the little kids. They had eaten at least as much candy as they had given out and been so hyper that their mom had actually let them go out after dark and kick a soccer ball around. Afterwards they had gone to Omar’s house and watched scary movies until almost midnight. It had been the best Halloween ever.
Parker felt the cold push through their hoodies as they waited to cross the street, trying to decide if they should go up Main St until Bannatyne, or if it was safer to walk up through downtown. As their eyes scanned their surroundings, their heart stopped beating for the second time that night. There was a missing poster taped to the side of the bus shelter that made their blood run cold. The poster was on thick, stark white paper and stood out in the light of the street lamp. It must have been put up really recently because it wasn’t weathered looking at all. Clear as anything, staring back at Parker from that poster was a picture of themself. They staggered back as though they’d been punched. Just like with the Halloween zombie, they doubted what they were seeing, but no amount of blinking or rubbing their face would change the reality of what was in front of them. This was definitely their face. It was their school picture from the previous year. It was unmistakably them staring out of that poster with the same pained half-smile they always had in every picture.
Parker age 14, last seen in the Exchange District on October 17, 2036.
They couldn’t read anymore because the tears in their eyes had blurred their vision. Age 14, that meant that the poster was really recent. That meant the first one to acknowledge their birthday was a damn poster stuck up by the Authority. They scrabbled at the edges of the poster trying to rip it off the bus shelter, but it was perfectly taped and they couldn’t get a hold of an edge.
So many feelings were bubbling up inside of Parker that they felt as if they were going to explode. Instead, they ran. Not towards Old Market Square like they had been planning. They turned and ran back towards the river. If their face was plastered on posters all over town then they couldn’t go to anyone for help. They felt like they were trapped on a rock in the midst of a river that just kept rising. No matter what they did, it seemed inevitable that they were going to drown.