*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*
The words spilled out of Parker’s lips, bringing both a strange relief and a burst of pain. They told Tiger about the day they’d been taken from school. It was surreal to talk about it now, to look back on themselves as that innocent kid being called out of English class, believing they would be back to finish their novel study.
“What kind of tests?” They had asked as they were escorted out of the school building by the principal, flanked by two Health Authority Officers.
The principal had put on her most kindly smile, “I think it’ll probably be more blood tests,” she had thrown a nervous glance at their entourage. “They said you won’t be back at school today, you can come and tell me about it tomorrow.”
Parker had tried to smile back, but it had been shaky at best. “Where am I going?”
One of the Authority Officers had answered while holding the door open and gesturing to the back seat of the car. “The clinic downtown. It isn’t far.”
The clinic was sterile and clean, sometimes the voices of other children echoed in the hallway, but Parker didn’t see anyone except the workers who bustled in and out of their room.
There was some blood work, some scans, lots of questions, but no answers. Parker had asked over and over again to see their parents, but there was always a reason, an excuse about why that wasn’t possible.
For three days they had believed that they would be going home, but everything had changed when they had woken up in their underground prison. The Authority must have drugged them because they had no memory of being moved from one place to another. It wasn’t the last time that they had been drugged.
That was when everything had changed. They were officially labelled a super spreader. No one bothered to be kind or try to sugar coat anything after that. They were a dangerous lab rat, a menace to society.
“After that life a mixture of boring and torture.” Parker told Tiger, trying and failing to keep the shake out of their voice.
“What do you mean, torture?” Tiger asked with what sounded like a growl.
“Weird things, like they’d make my room crazy hot, or super cold. Sometimes they wouldn’t feed me for a few days, or they’d feed me really salty stuff and not give me any water. They did tests too. Different kinds of tests” Parker shuddered as their voice trailed off. They both sat and stared at the fire in silence.
“At first I asked to see my parents a lot,” they said haltingly, “but, they told me my parents had agreed that it would be safer for me to be isolated. They said my parents were glad that they didn’t have to worry about me infecting and killing other people…” Parker opened their mouth, but there were no more words. They were empty, drained.
A long silence stretched between them as tears trickled down Parker’s cheeks onto their nearly dry green Health Authority pajama pants. Their slim body shook with the sobs they had been suppressing for months. Even when Tiger suddenly got up and left the fireside, Parker didn’t look up. They couldn’t blame Tiger for being angry, they should have told him right away that they were a super spreader. Were they putting him at risk? It was too much to process, they just wanted to go home. Even the word home left such a gaping ache in Parker’s heart that they almost couldn’t find space for air around the pain.
Parker heard Tiger approaching again and cringed a little at the sound of his footsteps, wondering if he would start yelling again. “You know it’s a lie, right?” Tiger’s voice was rough and scratchy, he sniffed loudly as he threw a ragged blanket over Parker’s shoulders. “Parker, your parents never said that. Never.”
Parker looked up as Tiger put his hand a little roughly onto their shoulder. “How would you know?” The words came out a hoarse whisper.
Tiger sat down heavily on a log near Parker and sighed. “I know cuz I wasn’t the dad I shoulda been to my Jenni. I couldn’t keep a house over her head after her mama died. I didn’t do a lot of the things that I shoulda done.” Parker was surprised to see the tears that shone in Tiger’s eyes. “But, even in my worst moments, I would never have let someone lock away my baby. I woulda fought for my Jenni and kept her with me, even if it meant death. I woulda fought for her and your parents woulda fought for you.”
Parker wanted to believe that TIger was right. “I want to go home,” they said quietly, fighting for composure.
“Yeah, I know.” Tiger and Parker both stared into the fire again. “Unfortunately, life doesn’t care what ya want.”
Parker flinched at the words, but couldn’t think of a response.
“It’s gonna be light in a few hours. Come on, we gotta sleep.” Tiger got to his feet and stretched.
Parker rose to their feet to follow. Uncertainty and fear replacing the sadness that had filled them to the brim. Now what? Would they crawl into a shelter with this guy? Was it safe? They dragged their feet a little, but reluctantly followed Tiger who, to their surprise, walked past his shelter and into the trees where they had to duck low and navigate the branches. Tiger pointed to the kayak that was nestled under some tall bushes. “Tuck yourself in there with the boat. It isn’t a fancy hotel, but the wind won’t get you and you’ll be safe. No one comes this way without me hearin’ them.” Without another word, Tiger turned and disappeared back towards his shelter.
“Christ kid, pull up your hood!” This morning greeting startled Parker who complied looking around in alarm. “Anyone sees you without a mask and we’ll have the Authority here in person.” Tiger softened his voice a little, “Even when I got up in the middle of the night to greet ya, I put on my mask.”
Parker pulled their hoodie up around their face the best they could, they sat down. “What time is it?”
“Do I look like someone who’s carryin’ a smartphone?” Tiger growled back, tossing Parker a banana.
Parker sat and ate quietly, looking out at the empty marketplace on the other side of the river. Their mind was racing trying to catch up with what the world around them was like now. They knew stories from the Covid-19 times, they knew that stores and restaurants had closed, their mom told them even schools and churches had been only online for a while. Parker opened their mouth to ask about the date and whether school was in session, but Tiger cut them off before they started.
“Kid, do ya have any idea what you’re doin’?”
“W-what do you mean?” Parker asked, their heart sinking heavily into their stomach.
Tiger gestured around them and then glared back at Parker. “Aren’t ya supposed to be on the run?” He asked in a low voice, “What are you doin’ sittin’ out in a clearing in broad daylight?”
“I-I just didn’t, I mean there’s, I…” The real answer was that Parker hadn’t made a plan. They were used to having grown ups control their world for better or for worse and had just expected that Tiger would save the day. Parker felt like a complete idiot, what were they thinking? That Tiger would somehow sneak them home in an invisibility bubble? Awkwardly they got up and tucked themselves out of sight in between some bushes a little ways from the shelter.
Tiger paced back and forth in front of his shelter for a while, Parker watched him, trying to think. “The truth is kid, you can’t just become my sidekick.” Tiger rambled as he paced, not facing Parker, “I’ve been alone for a long time and if anyone sees me with a kid, the regular police are gonna come. No one’s gonna believe that old Tiger has started takin’ in strays.”
Parker lit up at the word police, “If the police come, I can tell them my story and they can help.” Even to their own ears, Parker sounded like a kid in kindergarten.
“Help?” Tiger said the word as though it was foreign in his mouth. Then he turned to look out across the river and laughed. “That’s your plan? Go to the police?”
The words stung. A plan was definitely what they needed. This time it needed to be a little more comprehensive than don’t die. “Why not? Police are supposed to help people.” They asked, trying to infuse defiance instead of despair into their voice.
Tiger sighed and sat down heavily on a log. “Kid, the police are not superheroes. They’re people, doin’ their job. Some are real mean and others are ok, but all of ‘em will be workin’ with the Authority. The minute you tell ‘em you’re on the run, you’ll be right back where ya started.”
“Everyone’s against me.” Parker said the words as the realization hit them hard.
“A pity party isn’t gonna help you.” Tiger growled, “Now, you were smart enough to get here, I would guess you’re smart enough to keep goin’.”
“I can’t go to the police, I can’t go to Omar or my parents,” Parker tried to think through their options.
“Glad you figured that out.”
Parker ignored the unhelpful comment. “I need to get my story to the news, but to somewhere reputable. Somewhere that people will believe” Parker’s parents had often talked about how difficult it was to find news they could count on. Parker wished now they’d paid more attention in those conversations, who could they trust in the world of journalism?
Tiger grunted and Parker wasn’t sure if it was in agreement.
The more Parker tried to think, the more their heart raced and their fears swirled in their head. “I can’t just walk into the CBC or something and tell them that I escaped the Health Authority jail and that I’m a spreader. They’ll hate me.”
“You talk about spreaders like everyone knows what you’re talkin’ about.”
Didn’t they? Parker had been told over and over for the past 8 months that everyone in the world was living in fear of the spreaders. A sick feeling crept over them and they held their head in their hands to keep it from imploding. “It was all lies?”
“I told you that yesterday-”
Parker cut him off, “yeah, I know, but all of it? Was every single thing they told me a lie?” Parker thought back to Annie and Jack, the only two workers who had ever given them any care or attention, what if that had been a set up too? Had they just been pretending to care while feeding them nothing but lies? “Are there really lots of babies dying?” They blurted out. “Are the hospitals totally full?”
“I’m not the best source of updated news, but yeah, babies and little kids have been dyin’ the most. In the winter it was the worst, the football and soccer stadiums were set up like field hospitals.” Tiger shook his head, looked over at Parker and then away again. “It’s hard to know now how much is closed cuz they have to and how much is closed cuz everyone’s bankrupt. I only get the news when I get my rations, once a week at the Mission.”
“But they haven’t warned you about spreaders?” Parker was trying to sort out everything in their head.
“They? Who’s they? No one tells me nothin’. The news is blarin’ while I wait in those long distanced lines to get some food and I listen hard while I can. I never heard nothin’ about spreaders.”
“I guess there’s no school then?” Parker asked, trying to picture the world they no longer knew.
“I don’t know too much about that.” Tiger answered slowly, “I think there’s some kinda school still. I never see kids around in the day, they must be somewhere.”
School. If there was still school, then Parker had the beginnings of a plan forming in their head. “I had a teacher a few years ago who I know I could trust. She got married the year I was in grade 5 and her wife was a journalist.” The words came out slowly, afraid of all the reasons why Tiger would tell them that this also was not a worthwhile plan. “If I could get my story to her, she would help.”
“If she’s still alive you might have the start of a plan.” Tiger said darkly and Parker felt the banana they’d just eaten threaten to make a reappearance and swallowed hard.