How could the Authority have placed posters of them around the city? It didn’t make sense because the Authority had told everyone that they were dead. Dead people just didn’t go missing. Did this mean that the Authority had wiped out everyone they knew? This thought tormented Parker while they curled tighter and tighter into a ball on the hard ground. It was the only way the Authority could have admitted that they were searching for them, wasn’t it?
Gradually, as they calmed down, they realized that this actually wasn’t possible. Their school would have been informed of their death. Their extended family and their friends would have all known that they’d died. There was no way that the Authority could have killed everyone they’d ever known. They’d grown up on the same street their whole life, it would’ve meant getting rid of half their neighbours. It was a huge relief to think that their family and friends might still be ok, but it didn’t change the fact that the poster was there. They had seen it with their own eyes.
They curled themselves into an even tighter ball, as though somehow this would bring them safety or comfort. They squeezed their eyes closed and tried for the thousandth time to get some sleep. It was impossible. Everytime they tried to relax, the image of them, smiling up from that poster would float back up into their mind. They knew the poster said missing but in their mind’s eye, it said wanted. If only they had managed to get the poster off of the bus shelter, then at least they could examine it. What else did it say? They tried to bring the whole poster into focus in their mind, but all they could see was their picture. Parker wondered if they were considered armed and dangerous. If the number on the poster was the Authority, or worse, Crimestoppers. No matter how they turned it over in their mind, the only way they could find out what the poster said, was to go back and look.
After another hour of tossing and turning, they resigned themselves to starting their day. Going back to get the poster was a bit crazy and dangerous, but they needed to know what they were up against. Were people advised to capture them, or fear them? Was there a reward? The barest traces of light were starting to touch the sky when they pulled the blankets down off their head. It was probably between six and seven in the morning, which felt early, but the commuters would already be buzzing around the streets. The longer they waited the more people would be out. There was never going to be a great time to go and look at their own wanted poster.
They shivered as they fumbled with their mask and readjusted their hoods to keep their ears as warm as possible. A burning ache in their stomach and a pounding in their head reminded them that they would have to find food and water today. Giving up on eating because it seemed like too much work, probably wasn’t going to be a successful strategy. Maybe they would try the garbages of some of the giant houses along the river, people that rich must throw out food sometimes. A voice in the back of their mind also reminded them that people that rich had cameras guarding their garbage. They scowled and sighed. The enormity of effort that it took to survive was overwhelming.
“Parker.” The sound of their name reached their ears almost like a whisper on the wind. They froze midway through packing their bag like a rabbit sensing a storm. Their heart hammered once against their chest and then also seemed to freeze as if listening. Were they hallucinating now from lack of food and sleep? Did they actually hear someone call their name?
“Parker!” This sounded like a different voice, still far away, maybe from across the water.
Moving as quickly and quietly as possible, Parker finished packing their bag and took off along the river away from the voices. It was official, they were being hunted. Whatever had changed to allow the Authority to put up posters, clearly meant that they didn’t have to pretend anything anymore. A search party was combing the river. Their mind raced, trying to find some way of staying alive.
Then, they thought of it. There was a large spruce tree not too far along the river. It was bushy and green all year round and would give about the only camouflage they could think of. The searchers would be combing the ground for Parker, but if they hid in a tree they might just be safe for now.
Echoes of their name followed them along the river as they moved as quickly as the dim light and uneven ground would allow. A fierce, angry ball of energy was growing in their chest as they walked. The Authority had taken everything from them, they had basically lost their identity, their friends and their family. The last thing they still had was their freedom and they would hold onto it as fiercely as they could.
The tree was a little further away from the river than they normally ventured. Maybe it was weird, but they tried to keep from trespassing too much, preferring to stay on the river and away from private property. Today though, they would take safety over scruples. They weren’t likely to outrun a search party. The only chance was to find somewhere that no one would look. It was the most important game of hide and seek they would ever play.
The needles jabbed them painfully and the sap coated their fingers as they pulled themselves up into the tree. Every muscle in their body screamed with the effort of hoisting themselves higher. Climbing didn’t used to be this hard. They didn’t make it as far up as they would like, but settled themselves panting in amongst some densely packed branches. Leaning their body against the trunk, they hugged it awkwardly trying to calm their fluttering heart. After a few readjustments and some deep breaths they were surprised how comfortable they actually were in the tree. They wedged themselves between a few of the tight knit branches and draped their arms forward, almost as if they were at school sleeping on a desk. The smell of the tree was fresh and clean in their nose as they closed their eyes and breathed deeply.
“Par-ker!” The sound of the voice was so close this time that any feeling of relaxation instantly slipped away. They could actually see one of the searchers, or at least they could see snippets of a bright orange and yellow jacket. Parker put their head down, closed their eyes and just focused on keeping air going in and out of their body. Even though it was a cold morning they could feel sweat trickling down their face as they fought to stay calm. Now that the searcher was actually within view, Parker realized that if they were seen up in the tree then there was no chance of escape. Camouflage was their only hope, there was nowhere left to run.
The morning passed in slow motion, Parker’s name was constantly in the air and they saw glimpses of at least three people calling for them. They wondered how many people were in the search party and how long they would search the same area before they would give up and try somewhere else. Did they have a reason to believe that Parker was living along the river? Parker couldn’t imagine that there were searches happening all over the city. Someone had seen them, the Authority must know they were there. As they sat in the tree, Parker made a plan to move along the river as far as Assiniboine Park. They hadn’t been nearly that far since they’d been on the run, but they knew this was the same river, knew that if they followed it then it would have to take them there. A couple hours later though, Parker realized that they couldn’t wait for nightfall, they needed the searchers to move along because they had to pee.
In some ways, Parker was surprised that they were still peeing at all. It wasn’t like they’d had much to eat or drink lately. They wished their body would just keep any moisture that it could find, but evidently this just wasn’t how it worked. They waited with increasing desperation for the searchers to take a break and then finally, when they hadn’t heard anyone call for them for what felt like at least a half hour they decided they couldn’t wait any longer. Carefully, they slid themselves down the tree, gritting their teeth as the sharp needles poked them even through their double hoodie. Once on the ground, they moved as fast as they could to some tangled bushes that bordered the property and found as private a space as possible. There was a moment of relief and then another flood of dread and desperation. It was many hours until nightfall and they had to figure out what to do next.
Going back up the tree wasn’t appealing, but walking along the river in broad daylight when they knew people were looking for them seemed beyond stupid. They stood tucked into the bushes where the property met the riverside sick with indecision, trying to think of a better option.
“Parker?” The voice was soft and deep. They whipped their head up and saw a man in a yellow and orange jacket standing maybe ten metres away from them. His brown beard stuck out awkwardly around his white mask and his eyes were questioning.
“NO!” Parker screamed defiantly and started to run as fast as their legs could carry them down the beach away from the hunter.
“Wait!” They heard the words behind them, more confused than commanding. “Parker! Wait!” There were more words, but they were distant now and Parker’s eyes were scanning all around them, desperate for an escape. They had managed to stay free this long, there had to be somewhere to hide. The sun glinted off the river and they wondered if plunging into the fast flowing, icy water would be better than being taken by the Authority again.
That split second of staring out at the water was all it took for them to lose their footing. They weren’t watching where they were going, weren’t looking at the jagged slippery rocks that were underfoot. They landed wrong, slid a little, turned their ankle and collapsed with a scream of pain and fury. Pushing themselves onto their knees, they felt bolts of pain shoot up their right leg. Unable to stand and gagging with agony they rolled back onto their side and looked down to where their foot stuck out at a strange angle. A little further down the river they could see the man jogging to catch up with them. They thought maybe he was talking, but couldn’t make out his words over the pounding of their heart in their ears. Their head rested uncomfortably on the rocks, but they didn’t have the energy to lift it. They had failed. They were broken and defeated, there was nowhere left to run.
“Parker, is that really you?” This time the voice came from behind them and was so startlingly clear and familiar that Parker did look up and peer blinking stupidly into a dark face that peered down at them in concern. Words failed them completely, they reached out with their hand as though to touch what seemed to be an illusion. The illusion crouched down and also reached out its hand.
“Omar?” Parker asked disbelievingly.
Omar’s eyes lit up with his smile as he grabbed hold of Parker’s hand and pulled them into a painful hug. “It’s all over, Parker,” he choked out the words, his voice thick with emotion. “It’s time to go home.”