Exhausted and scratched from head to toe, Parker collapsed into the pile of leaves under one of the big elm trees near Tiger’s shelter. They had dumped all their stuff as Tiger had suggested, but dumping a kayak is harder than it sounds. They’d had to half drag, half carry the kayak through the brush and trees to where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers connected. When they finally made it to a safe place where they could push the kayak out into the water, it floated listlessly near the shore. It took some well aimed large rocks and an extended battle with a long tree branch, but eventually the kayak caught the current and hopefully managed to make it far from the Forks.
Hunger gnawed at Parker’s belly like an untamed beast as they lay on the ground and gave in to a full round of feeling sorry for themselves. Had they escaped from the Authority only to starve to death on the riverbank? What did they actually think they were going to accomplish?
They barely looked up when they heard Tiger’s heavy footfall, but couldn’t ignore the heavy, lumpy grey plastic bag that he tossed onto their stomach as he lurched past.
“Hey!” Parker yelled sitting up with a start half winded.
“Your welcome.” was a barely audible grumble as he disappeared into his shelter and reemerging carrying a plastic electric kettle. He stomped off along the river, kettle in hand before Parker even had time to open the bag.
The bag had been tied shut and Parker fumbled a little with the knot feeling miserable and light headed. The moment they got the bag open, tears sprang to their eyes and they were filled with a thankfulness that they hadn’t known until that moment.
The bag was filled with food!
They had no idea how they would open the cans inside, but for the moment the slightly flattened loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter were the most beautiful things they had ever seen. They eagerly pulled out a slice of bread and crammed it into their mouth while they unscrewed the lid of the peanut butter. They expected to see a lake of shimmering oil at the top of the jar and laughed out loud when the peanut butter hadn’t separated. Parker had never really loved peanut butter, but now they couldn’t imagine why. It was the best thing they had ever tasted. After wedging the second piece of bread into the jar to scoop out the nutty deliciousness, they made themselves stop. Who knew how long this food would need to last, better to show restraint now then to starve later.
Parker carefully retied the plastic bag and carried it to their nest. They’d wrapped the few useful things that they’d kept from the bag they’d stolen in the ratty blanket Tiger had given them and had buried their treasures under the leaves. Their nest looked a little bare and exposed without the kayak that had sheltered it. It wasn’t much, but at least they wouldn’t be starving any time soon.
“Ya eat all that already?” Tiger barked the moment they came into view.
“I buried it in the leaves with my other stuff.” stammered Parker awkwardly, “Thank you so much, I really don’t-”
“Forget it.” Tiger growled cutting Parker off and handing them a mug full of instant noodles. Parker started to thank him again, but he waved them off. “Sit and listen good.”
Without hesitation Parker did what they were told. They didn’t know how to take Tiger, one minute he seemed menacing and the next he was literally the only thing keeping Parker alive. It was like being best friends with a porcupine.
“I did a little diggin’ around today. First, no one’s heard of super spreaders. Second, there’s no story about you escapin’. I don’t think they can write about it cuz I think you’re already dead.”
“What?” Parker struggled to make sense of what Tiger was saying. “I’m dead?”
“One of the guys I know, follows the news like crazy, he’s a nut, but he remembers everything. He says a while back there were stories about widespread testin’ that had turned up a bunch of kids who were infected with paravirus.” Tiger’s words were a little slurred and poured out like a waterfall. Parker stared wildly trying to follow what he was saying.
“I didn’t have the paravirus.”
“The guy says that all the kids that were found died. Their parents tried to raise a stink and get it investigated, but since that was just when the virus was really hittin’, nothin’ came of it.”
They were both quiet for a minute. Tiger intent on his noodles and Parker trying to make some sense of what they were being told. “You think I was one of those kids?” They asked in a small voice. “They told my parents that I had the paravirus and died?”
“Makes sense to me.” Tiger answered not looking up from his noodles.
“My parents think I’m dead?” The question was barely audible.
Tiger looked up and shrugged. “Or they don’t. But looks like that’s what they were told.”
Parker didn’t know how to make room for this info in their brain, but they didn’t have much time either as Tiger just kept talking. “Schools are open, some weird schedule with on days and off days, but that teacher of yours is probably workin’. Got the extra food for ya, but you gotta make it last. Told ‘em at the shelter that squirrels got into my stuff. Wont be able to use that excuse again, so make it last. Got this too.” Tiger tossed a silver rectangle in Parker’s direction. “It won’t shelter you as good as that boat, but better than nothin’.”
Parker picked up the silver package and realized that it was a tarp. “Why are you doing all this for me?” They blurted out, their mind whirling and tears stinging their eyes.
Tiger didn’t answer or even look their way and they slumped back onto the ground clutching the tarp in their arms. They were dead. On paper and in the records they didn’t exist anymore. Parker didn’t know if they should be relieved, because they weren’t being hunted, or terrified that the Authority could kill them and not even need to cover it up.
Parker heard crunching leaves and opened their eyes to see Tiger looming over them. “Mug.” he said hand out, and Parker stammered an apology again, slurping at the last of their noodles and handing it back. Tiger stood there a minute almost seeming to sway in the breeze. “I’m goin’ to bed. Some damn kid kept me up half the night last night.” He stumbled towards his shelter and then stopped and looked back. “Parker, I want you to have a chance. What the Authority are doin’ to you isn’t right. Too many of us never get a chance.” With that he was gone.
It wasn’t long before a rumble of snores could be heard and Parker didn’t know if they were relieved or depressed to be left on their own. At first their thoughts just swirled in their mind. More than anything they wanted to somehow make contact with their parents. They wanted to tell them that they weren’t dead. They wanted to tell them that they loved them.
No matter how they turned that thought over, contacting their parents was stupid; a death wish. The Authority would be watching their parents, but they wouldn’t be watching Ms. Rose. If she was back at school, there had to be a way of making contact. It was the only thing they could think of that brought any semblance of hope. Maybe she was the key to the complicated lock their life had become.