*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 *
“Kid,” Tiger’s voice hissed loudly in Parker’s sleeping ear. “Parker, get up!”
“Huh?” Parker jerked awake and tried to sit up quickly, but only managed to smack themselves into a low branch and flop back down as their arm caught in a fold of the tarp and pulled them back to the ground.
“Stay still and quiet.” The warning in Tiger’s voice caused Parker to freeze in fear. “The Authority’s here. I don’t know if they’re lookin’ for ya, but I don’t think you wanna wait to find out.”
Parker swallowed a whimper as they slowly and quietly found their way out of their nest. “They’re here?”
“They’re over at the market, combing through the trees across the way.” he gestured across the river, “I seen at least four of ‘em.”
“I got to go.” Parker said, reaching out for their food bag and cramming a couple of energy bars into their pocket, hands shaking so badly they could scarcely hold on to them.
Tiger gripped their arm firmly. “You can’t go shootin’ out of here like a startled rabbit. If you run, they’ll chase.”
Fear tore at Parker’s insides, “Are you crazy?” they whispered. “Let me go! If I stay here they’ll catch me for sure.”
“I’m not suggestin’ that ya stay here. You gotta hide in plain sight.” Tiger rammed an old, smelly ball cap onto Parker’s head and shoved a couple of papers into their hand.
Parker recognized the papers as bus tickets but didn’t understand at all. Tiger on the other hand was collecting the remnants of Parker’s nest and starting to haul it away. “What are you doing?”
“I’m hiding your crap. You need to walk over to the path and walk out a here like you don’t have a care in the world. Find a bus, get on it. Get a transfer, get on another bus. When your transfer is done, walk around for another couple hours.” Tiger's rough hand grabbed Parker’s face, stopping them from looking around wildly. Gently he turned it until it was facing his own. Their eyes met and Parker whimpered again. “The calmer you are, the less reason anyone has to stop ya.”
The first calming breath Parker tried for sounded more like a gasp, but as they breathed several more times they were able to get to their feet without the tremble in their legs causing them to collapse. Tiger moved steadily working to erase any sign that Parker had ever been there.
Parker closed their eyes and wished for a surge of bravery. They wanted to be like the kids they saw in movies or read about in books. Those kids never freaked out when things got serious. They even managed to be funny and witty while they were almost getting killed. The problem was, this wasn’t some movie. No one was writing them a script of what to do next. This was real and they were terrified. Parker wondered if there were really people who could hear that they were being hunted and feel defiant instead of sick and lightheaded.
Once they started walking, moving felt good. With each step they took, they felt less wobbly. They didn’t exactly feel confident, but their terror faded a bit. Would the Authority even think twice if they saw them? Were they searching for them as a fugitive, or as a body that might have washed up along the shore? Parker wondered what their hunters would expect them to do. They hoped whatever it was that they were doing the opposite.
Parker crossed the pedestrian bridge and paused for a moment wondering if they should turn right and go up Main St, or left and head over the bridge. This wasn’t an area of the city that they knew well at all, in fact, the only area they knew was St. James where they had grown up. They had rarely ever taken the bus in their life. Come to think of it, they didn’t even know anyone who took the bus. Cayden was the only one to come to mind. Parker didn’t know him well, but they knew that Cayden’s parents lived in different parts of the city and he always had to take the bus from his dad’s house to school. Really, everyone in their grade knew that because the weeks when Cayden stayed with his dad, he was at least an hour late for school everyday. Parker, whose parents were very anal about puntuality (and a few other things) couldn’t imagine what it was like to come and go as they pleased. Parker didn’t think they had ever been late for school in their life and the only times they had taken the bus had been for school or with Omar. They felt a tiny thrill of excitement to think that they could do whatever they wanted now.
Voices echoed up the path behind them and Parker lurched forward as though they had been electrocuted. They snapped back into the reality of the moment and the thrill evaporated as quickly as it had come. Operating on autopilot they turned right and headed up the street trying to calm their walk into a more casual pace.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” The bus driver asked, her eyes friendly and concerned between her mask and her headscarf.
“School?” Parker asked, trying to think of something to say. “Not today.” They stammered, trying to retrieve the bus ticket out of their pocket. “Alternating days at my school.” Their voice was high and squeaky as beads of sweat suddenly coated their forehead and back.
The driver nodded. “I can’t keep up with the changing schedules.” she said with what Parker thought was probably a smile. “Transfer?”
Parker nodded dumbly, so relieved to be able to walk past her and slump into an empty seat.
It was only once the bus had been traveling a while that Parker started to notice their surroundings. The bus was nearly empty, the streets were quiet. The city felt slow and sluggish. There were so many dark or boarded up stores that Parker began to wonder just how many places were still open at all. Where were all the people? Were they dead? Scared? Or maybe, Parker thought with dread, they were following some kind of new rules. Rules that Parker might break without even knowing anything about them at all.
“Next stop; Kildonan Park.” The automated voice announced and Parker rang the bell relieved to have finally heard something that was familiar. They hadn’t been to this park much, but they’d visited the outdoor stage a few times with their parents. At least it was somewhere to go.
As Parker did endless loops of the park, their mind also raced in circles. Over and over again they fantasized about going home. They ached with such a fierce desire to see their parents that it was like a physical pain. They could imagine bursting into their house before any Authority workers could grab them. In their head it was like a game of hide and seek where they would be safe once they touched home. Their parents would know they were alive. They imagined settling back into their video games and letting their parents take on the Authority.
There was another voice in their head (one that was starting to sound a little like Tiger) that asked the uncomfortable questions, bringing their whole fantasy crashing down. What would the Authority do to keep Parker and their parents quiet? What if their parents had died of the paravirus? How could they get to their house without being seen? The Authority would be waiting for them, watching their house. Their parents weren’t waiting or watching for them. Their parents thought they were dead.
Parker tried to eat their energy bars as slowly as possible, sitting miserably on the cement sheltered by the overhang of a closed up snack shop watching the rain splatter down from the sky.
Ms. Rose. They had to somehow tear their attention away from home and instead concentrate on Ms. Rose. She taught at their old elementary school, the Authority wouldn’t be likely to be doing a stakeout there. Could it be as simple as sending her a letter? They tried to imagine what they would write.
Dear Ms. Rose,
Hi, how are you? This is K.J. Parker, you taught me in grade 5. You might have heard that I’m dead, but it isn’t true. I was a prisoner of the Authority, they were doing tests on me. I don’t know why. Please tell my parents I’m alive. If you can, get your wife to do a story on the kids that were taken when I disappeared. There are at least a few of us who are still alive. I think I’m the only one who has escaped.
I hope you’re ok.
The words felt awkward in their head, but no matter how much they wanted to impress their old teacher with their excellent writing abilities, this was not really the problem. Not having paper, a pen, an envelope, a stamp, money, the school’s address, all of these things would definitely get in the way even if they were the best letter writer in the world. How did homeless people ever manage to get off the street when they had to just keep surviving? Everything was so hard when you didn’t have anything.
Even if they could manage to write the letter and get it to Ms. Rose, what was realistic to hope for? They knew she’d remember them, they were sure she hadn’t taught a ton of non-binary kids. Parker wondered if she would believe the letter was really from them. If she’d be brave enough to call their grieving parents and give them hope that Parker was still alive. She might show it to the police and then they’d find out if Tiger was right. Or would they? There wasn’t really a way for them to know what Ms. Rose was or wasn’t doing, even if they could get her a letter.
The amount of things they didn’t know were piling up around them threatening to squash them flat. Their head pounded as they bussed out across the city, past the area where Ms. Rose was hopefully teaching in her classroom and back. Their stomach kept rumbling and their mind kept churning. The plan was loose and dangly in their mind, but at least they had somewhere to direct their energies.
When they got back they would talk to Tiger about it. Even just thinking about his reaction made them wince. He would see a million holes in their plan and definitely wouldn’t shy away from explaining all the things that could go wrong. That was assuming the Authority hadn’t taken him. Assuming there was still a place at the Forks where they could safely make their nest.