*This is a weekly serial blog, it will make way more sense if you start on www.kylamcdonald.com/post/spreader-week-1-the-escape *
Parker whipped around, tried to stand up, but over balanced. “W-who are y-you?” They asked with chattering teeth and a hammering heart.
A large shadow of a man stood in front of Parker, nearly shoulder length hair blowing a little in the breeze, face dark and featureless. The smell of him was almost as overpowering as the fear that gripped Parker. How was it that they had never considered the possibility that other people might also be camped out at the Forks. It had been a meeting place for thousands of years, the rivers had a way of bringing people together.
“Not Jenni,” The man muttered, his voice muffled, laughing a mirthless laugh. “Should ‘a known. Not anythin’ like my Jenni.”
Parker didn’t know what to do or say. They felt stupid lying on the ground speechless, shivering and cowering. “Who’s J-jen-ni?” They asked, pulling themselves into a sitting position.
“Nevermind.” The man said and as quickly as he had appeared, he was retreating back into the shadows.
Parker didn’t know if they were relieved or disappointed. They could hear the man rummaging around and could just barely make out the outline of some kind of pieced together shelter in the trees. Their eyes lingered on the shelter for a moment before turning back to their kayak. Parker hadn’t realized how deprived they had been for human contact until the only person they had seen in months (the prison guards and fleeting glimpses of prisoners didn’t count) walked away from them.
Dragging themselves to their feet, Parker grabbed the edge of the kayak and started to heave it in the opposite direction from where the stranger had his home. As much as Parker wanted to connect with someone, they didn’t want trouble. What they really wanted was to find a sheltered spot where they could bury themselves in the leaves and pull the kayak overtop of their head. Maybe then they would be warm. Maybe they would wake up with some kind of idea about what to do now that they had made it to the Forks alive.
“Where you tryin’ to get to?” Parker was so lost in their thoughts that they hadn’t heard the man approach again. They wheeled around, tripped over the end of the kayak and almost landed on him.
“S-sorry.” They stammered, shaking from nerves, cold and adrenaline as the man caught them in arms much stronger than Parker had expected and stood them back on their feet.
“I’m not one to get in other’s business.” The man said in a much gentler voice, “but you’re a kid who needs help. My Jenni woulda wanted me to help you.”
“I-I,” Parker wanted to say that they didn’t need help, but they felt a lump rise in their throat and couldn’t access any more words.
“Put these on.” He said gruffly tossing a dark bundle at Parker. “I got no pants for you, but at least this’ll keep you from freezin’.”
“Thank y-you.” Parker said staring at the ground, gratitude and shame washing over them in equal measures. Was it right for them to take clothes from a homeless guy? They felt like they didn’t know what was right any more, all they knew was that they needed to get warm.
The man started to walk away, “I’m makin’ a fire. You choose to stay or go.”
Parker darted behind a bush and peeled off their drenched shirt pulling on the t-shirt and hoodie the stranger had given them. The clothes were giant and smelled of dirt and leaves, but they were the best thing that Parker had ever felt like a warm hug around their freezing body. When they came out from behind the bush the man was gone, but Parker could see faint flames over near the shelter.
There wasn’t really a big decision to be made. Parker had nowhere to go and no idea really how to survive or hide their kayak without help. This guy might kill them and throw their body in the river, but they knew it was a stereotype about the homeless and not their instincts that made them think that way. So far, this man had shown them kindness and kindness was something they hadn’t had in a long time.
“Where’s your mask?” Parker had been sitting near the small fire for a few minutes before the man re emerged from hiding their kayak somewhere behind the dark patch of trees. Parker caught their first clear view of him in the firelight and realized that he looked like a shadow because most of his face was obscured by a black mask and the rest by a ragged mop of black hair. The man was wearing a hoodie with a jacket that was equal parts dirt and fabric overtop.
“My mask?” The only time Parker had ever worn a mask was for assemblies at school and when they had gone into the old folks’ home to give out Christmas cards in grade 6.
The man’s dark eyes scanned them critically for a few minutes and Parker’s heart pounded in their chest as they watched the firelight reflect and somehow magnify his stare. Then, without warning, the man burst out laughing startling Parker so much that they fell backwards off the stool they’d been sitting on. “I’m not one to take an interest in strangers, but you kid, you are interestin’. How’s it that you’re alive on this planet and ya don’t know nothin’ about masks? You’d be arrested in about 2 seconds if anyone sees ya out anywhere.”
Picking themselves up off the ground and sitting back on the stump, the words just started to tumble out of Parker’s mouth, “I’ve been a prisoner, they kept me in a room since January. I haven’t seen my parents, I don’t even know if they know I’m alive. I don’t know anything about the world anymore.” The tangle of sentences were barely coherent as Parker wrestled with their painful truths.
“Hold up,” The man said, his brow furrowed sitting across the fire from Parker. “You don’ even look old enough for juvy, you tellin’ me you escaped from jail?”
Parker nodded and then shook their head. “Not like a regular jail,” they said looking up defiantly at the man, “I’m not some criminal.”
The man raised his eyebrows, “sorry kid, didn’ know there was a jail for non-criminals.”
“There is,” Parker said, taking a deep steadying breath, “I was in the Health Authority’s jail.”
The man swore loudly and got to his feet, Parker tensed immediately and got ready to run. “You mean those bastards really have a jail?” The man swore and sat down again deflating as he slumped on his chunk of wood. “All us street people heard the rumours. I thought they were crazy talk. Homeless people just disappearin’. The talk is that they come with vans, take anyone who maybe coughed once this week. Knock ‘em all out with some kind of gas, throw ‘em in the van and they’re gone.” The man’s agitation grew again and he got to his feet pacing back and forth between his shelter and the fire, muttering and swearing under his breath.
Parker didn’t know what to do. They had thought that either the man would be disbelieving or afraid of Parker, they had never considered that there could be a whole other side to the story. Then again, maybe this guy was crazy, he certainly swore more than any grown up that Parker had ever seen. They didn’t exactly feel afraid of the man, but his erratic, angry behaviour was not comforting.
“You seen ‘em?” The man looked over as though he had just remembered that Parker was there. “In that jail of yours, you seen a bunch of us stuffed in those cells?”
“N-no,” Parker stammered, “I didn’t really see much of anyone. It was a room, not a cell.” The image of that room was etched into their brain forever. Three white walls and one made of rock. A door with no doorknob, a panel on the wall that they thought was one-way glass. A small flat mat on the floor with a gray blanket that wasn’t long enough to pull up over their head to block out the light that was always on. There was a bucket in one corner that was usually emptied once a day. Some days there were trays with lots of water and food. Some days there was nothing.
“How do I know what’s the truth? How do I know I can trust you, boy?”
Parker flinched as though they’d been hit. It was surprising to them that in the midst of running for their life, it still stung to be called boy.
Something in Parker’s reaction registered with the stranger and almost too quickly, they had switched back to being calm again. “Sorry kid,” he said, shaking his head wearily, “I’m not good with people. That’s why they call me Tiger, I growl a lot and I’m best left alone.”
They sat in silence for several long minutes as the small fire danced, the flames crackling, sending up showers of tiny sparks. “I’m not always so great with people either,” Parker said after a long pause, “I have one friend who really gets me, but mostly people are too much work.”
“Yeah, tell me about it.” Tiger answered and Parker was pretty sure he was smiling. “So, you a girl?” He added after peering at them for another minute.
Parker’s mom had often lectured them about polite ways of handling this question. It was true that there was no reason for them to fly into a rage when someone asked their gender, but it was too exhausting always trying to claw their way out of a box they couldn’t fit into. “No.”
Tiger squinted his eyes and cocked his head to the side. “Oh.” For once it wasn’t Parker who didn’t know what to say. “It seemed like you didn’t like it when I called you boy.”
Rants about gender normative, binary conforming ideologies raced through their mind, but Parker took a deep breath and bit down on their bottom lip hard before answering. “What’s it to you?” They finally said, as nicely as they could.
“What?” Tiger’s eyes darted around as though they weren’t sure what was happening.
“Why does it matter to you if I’m a boy or a girl? What difference does it make?”
This question was always followed by a long pause. Most people had never thought about why they wanted everyone to fit into one of two categories, they just knew that they did. “Well,” Tiger said thoughtfully, “I don’t wanna call you boy if you’re a girl…” his sentence trailed off.
“Great. Don’t call me boy or girl, call me Parker and then maybe we can move on to something that matters.” Parker tried to keep their voice steady. They did know that it wasn’t Tiger’s fault, most people grew up being taught that everyone fit into one of two genders. It also wasn’t Parker’s fault that they didn’t.
Tiger shook his head and stared out at the river for a minute. “My Jenni always did have a way of pickin’ ‘em.” He spoke more to the water than he did to Parker and then turned his head, his dark eyes once again dancing with firelight. “Ok, Parker why don’t you start by tellin’ me what matters.”