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Spreader Week 5 - A Mask

*This is a weekly serial blog, it will make way more sense if you start on 5 whole weeks waiting for you!*

Parker crouched behind a shaggy bush amongst the trees and tried to keep their balance on the damp sloped earth as they watched the worker shovel gravel along the walkway to fill in the gaps. They tried not to think about how ridiculous they looked or what they would do if they were discovered lurking in the bushes.

They had been crouched there for what seemed like forever and they were still no closer to figuring out what they were actually supposed to do. Parker needed a mask. No one was allowed to be in public without one and they couldn’t afford to draw attention to themselves.

“I’ll make it simple for you kid,” Tiger had said before he set off to do whatever he did during the day, “you either have a mask when I get back, or I’m puttin’ you back in that boat and sendin’ you down the river.”

Parker had winced at Tiger’s harsh words, but he had given them little choice about sitting around and procrastinating. Numb with fear and dread, Parker had set off keeping to the trees as much as possible to check out all the garbage cans at the Forks Market in hopes of finding a mask. As much as the idea of someone’s dirty mask was disgusting, the idea of being hauled away by the Authority, or chucked out by Tiger was definitely worse.

It turned out that it was tricky to stay hidden and check garbage cans as the forested river banks weren’t exactly at the heart of the market. There also wasn’t really any garbage around. The Forks Market was normally buzzing with activity all year long. Parker had been there tons with their family and even on days when the wind was blowing and it was -40C there were lots of people around.

Today the market was empty.

Every apocalypse and zombie story that Parker had ever read came flooding to their mind. It was surreal. When they had been taken by the Authority there was talk and the beginnings of fear over the paravirus, but life was still life. Now, scanning the outdoor tables, benches and paths, Parker couldn’t even see a single other person. It was as if they had been transported to a different world.

Then they heard it. The sound of some kind of power tool coming from closer up towards the Provencher Bridge. They had followed the sound of the leaf blower until they had found a single employee tending to the desolate grounds. From where they were crouched, Parker could see the golf cart like maintenance car that was sitting between them and the worker. They could see a sports bag carelessly tossed in the back of the cart. Parker was willing to bet that there was at least one spare mask in the bag and maybe even some work clothes. The question was how to get it.

As their legs ached from being cramped on the muddy slope, they considered just making a run for it. The employee was further from the cart than they were, the odds and the element of surprise were both on their side.

But, if they got caught…

They shuddered and readjusted themselves in their hiding place. It was really a gamble they couldn’t afford to take, because they couldn’t afford to lose. Of course, there was a part of them that still felt like the police might help, but there was an equally large (or maybe larger) part of them that felt that Tiger might be right. The police were probably working with the Authority. There was also the fact that they were a teenager and even at the best of times, teenagers weren’t given the benefit of the doubt. This was definitely not the best of times. At the same time, Parker was terrified that the worker would drive away and leave them with no mask facing an angry Tiger.

Just as Parker had started to collect a few sticks, wondering if they could create some kind of bush camouflage that they could use to get closer to the cart (like they’d seen in lots of cartoons), another cart pulled up on the narrow roadway.

“Sandy!” Parker heard the worker yell over the noise of the leaf blower, “I need your help with the railing at the front of the Children’s Museum.”

As the two workers talked, Parker screwed up every bit of courage they could muster and made a low stealthy run towards the cart. They arrived silently panting and snatched the bag out of the backseat.

“Definitely before the snow comes.” The workers were still talking, they tried to catch their breath, this was not a good time to hyperventilate.

“Leaf blower this week and snowblower next.” Sandy answered and they both laughed.

Snow? Parker wondered if they had heard right, but before they could tune back into the conversation, they realised it had ended.

Parker dropped to their knees, ducking down into a tight ball, the bag awkwardly squashed against their stomach. They were filled with visions of the workers seeing them, grabbing them by the hood of their sweatshirt and hauling them off to the police.

Run they told themselves, RUN! But they couldn’t. Their body was frozen and all they could do was wait for the noises that would tell them that they were caught.

They heard the scuff of feet on loose stones and the sound of the other cart driving away and knew they would be found any second. When the whirr of the leaf blower rang out again, Parker jumped a foot in the air still curled up like a ball. Their heart hammered in their body like a sledgehammer as they saw the back of the worker’s head, and finally ran.

They threw themselves back into the bushes, sliding on the mud and tearing the leg of their pants and their skin on an upturned branch. They didn’t care. Gulping for breath as though they had just been saved from drowning, they made steady progress back towards Tiger’s shelter, unable to suppress the smile on their face or the shake in their legs. The bag was bulky and heavier than they expected, but they didn’t dare stop to examine the contents.

Crouched under their kayak, sheltered from the wind and prying eyes, Parker finally unzipped the top of the bag and felt as though they had been punched in the gut. The first thing out of the bag was a pair of glittery high heeled shoes, followed by an black open-backed shirt. They groaned and held back tears, the worker must have had a date or something. These were not the work clothes that Parker had hoped they were going to find.

They had to push themselves to keep unloading the bag, and finally some useful items started to emerge. There were three different masks! The one with a picture of a puckered pair of lips on the front was definitely not useful, but the other two were black and nondescript, just what they needed. There was also a pair of jeans, a black touque, a bottle of water and a few energy bars.

Parker wasted only time for a glance around them before they ripped off their Authority issued pajama pants and pulled on the faded blue jeans. It was a relief to be out of their prison clothes, but the jeans were not at all a perfect fit. After rolling them up what felt like a dozen times they were kind of the right length and they didn’t fall off, which was definitely a bonus. Parker was relieved that at least it had been jeans and not leopard print tights or something.

Before putting on one of the masks they inhaled half the bottle of water and one of the energy bars. Their stomach still rumbled hungrily, but they resisted eating more of the food they had pulled from the bag. They had no idea how to be a fugitive and not starve in the process. Anything they could think of to do to get food would also put them in the path of the Authority.

“What the hell is that?” Tiger asked, poking at one of the high heeled shoes with his soggy boot. “You goin’ out on the town or what?”

“They’re not mine,” Parker answered, recovering from the shock of Tiger’s sudden appearance.

He surveilled the stolen bag and its contents and then growled putting his head in his hands. “For a smart kid, you’re pretty stupid.” He said glaring.

“What?” Parker asked, getting to their feet and throwing their arms up in frustration. “I got a mask, that’s what you told me to do!”

Tiger took a menacing step towards them and Parker recoiled unsure what to do. “First of all, shut up.” Tiger said in a voice that was barely a whisper.

Parker swallowed the words they were about to say, unsure not for the first or last time, of whether Tiger was a help or a threat.

“You stole this and brought it to my home. How do you think that looks?” Without more than a second’s pause Tiger continued, pacing back and forth in front of Parker, “Now you’re yellin’ when you’re not even supposed to exist. You need to think like a fugitive kid, or you’re gonna land us both in trouble.”

Parker’s face burned with shame. They wanted to argue, but once again Tiger was right and they had been stupid. “Should I throw the stuff in the river?” They asked in a small shaky voice.

Tiger considered this for a minute, looking to the river and then away again. “We gotta get rid of your kayak too, but you don’t want ‘em connected.” They mumbled the words more to themselves than to Parker, “I think you should carry the crap you don’t need up that way through the trees and throw it out on the sidewalk. After that you can take care of the boat by haulin’ it down and sendin’ it along the Red.”

“Could I just go dump the bag back at the Forks?” Parker asked as they packed the fancy clothes and make up back into the bag. “That way, the worker can get most of her stuff back.”

“Nice idea if you don’t mind bein' seen on the security cameras.” Tiger answered walking away. After a few paces he stopped and turned back to Parker, looking past them out to the river. “There’s not a lot of room for kindness out here Parker. Doing the right thing isn’t going to keep you alive.”

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