Parker got off the bus by the baseball stadium and walked cautiously towards the Forks. They were on high alert, but trying to look casual wondering if the Authority would still be hunting for them.
The Museum of Human Rights loomed above them as they walked closer to the Market area and still they couldn’t decide on their best course of action. Should they head to the river and sneak along through the trees hoping to avoid attention or was it better to just walk down the main road and hope that the Authority would have little reason to pursue someone standing in plain sight. If they were asked, they would use Cayden’s story as their own (like they had with a few of the bus drivers throughout the day). Making their way from their dad’s house to their mom’s house was something that everyone accepted without question.
Finally they decided on middle ground. They would walk along the path beside the Museum that meandered its way through the park. It wasn’t quite as exposed as standing on the nearly empty sidewalk, but not as suspicious as walking along the riverbank.
They set off down the path at a quick pace and then froze when they heard voices ahead. They stood silent and still straining to hear what was being said. Making out the words was impossible at this distance, and they cautiously moved forward until the breeze carried the voices their way. Their whole body relaxed and they smiled to themselves. It wasn’t the Authority, it sounded like a group of kids talking and laughing together. It had been so long since Parker had heard other kids that they found themselves smiling at the thought that something as normal as play could still happen.
As they came over the small ridge by the back of the playground area they were suddenly closer to the kids, who looked to be in their mid-teens, than they had meant to be.
“It’s not funny!” They heard one boy shout through his own laughter, “Just give it to me!”
The tallest kid was holding something just out of reach of the shouting boy. “Catch!” he yelled as he launched it up through the air laughing and swearing. The object sailed towards Parker, thudded down and rolled across the grass coming to rest right just in front of their feet.
Without even thinking about it they reached down and picked up the can and held it out to the boy who was charging towards them.
It was a moment they would play over and over in their mind afterwards. They should have side-stepped it and kept going. If they had avoided contact everything might have been ok, but as they turned and saw the angry eyes of the kid barrelling towards them it was already too late.
“That’s mine!” The kid yelled, grabbing it from Parker’s hands and sending them hurtling towards the ground. Parker didn’t even have time to think about what to do next before they felt the blow to their stomach. “I’ll teach you to put your filthy paws on my stuff!” The kid yelled towering over them and kicking them again in the side.
As Parker gasped, breathless and in pain, they heard the sound of more pounding feet. “What did you find Mike?” a deeper voice asked and Parker was suddenly grabbed by their hoodie and hauled to their feet.
Without even giving themselves a second to think, they jerked away and tried to bolt towards the trees of the river bank like a hunted rabbit, terror coursing through their veins.
Unfortunately, the adrenaline pumping through their body was not enough to out manoeuvre the three bigger kids. One of them grabbed Parker by their hood and pulled them backwards.
The kids were all around them passing them back and forth like a basketball.
“Come on guys, this is stupid.” One of the teens caught Parker and dropped them to the ground. “Let’s go, I’m hungry. Who cares about this kid?”
“You’re such a pussy.” One of the other kids, the one called Mike grumbled as they pushed at Parker with their boot. “He touched my stuff, I think it’s only right that I help him learn from his mistake.”
Parker felt themselves being hauled to their feet again. “What are you blind? It’s a girl.” The deep voiced kid said laughing and pulling Parker into a headlock where his body was pushing uncomfortably into Parker’s.
“You sure?” Mike asked, pulling Parker’s mask down and staring into their petrified face.
“One way to find out!” The deep voiced boy said enthusiastically, roughly grabbing at Parker’s body through their jeans and hoodie.
Parker, who had been frozen in terror, suddenly regained their ability to move and started fighting back and screaming like a wild cornered animal. They flailed their limbs frantically, but this just seemed to encourage their tormentors.
“That's more like it!” The deep voiced boy laughed, pushing them to the ground and grinding their body into Parker who tried desperately to throw him off.
“Jarod, I didn’t know you were into little boys!” Mike laughed standing over them.
“You guys are both sick. I’m out of here.” The tallest boy stalked off, throwing Parker a pitying glance as he left.
Jarod flipped Parker over and pinned their arms under his legs. “Let’s check and see if it’s a boy or a girl!” He said laughing as the other boy kneeled on Parker’s legs and started to fumble with the button on their jeans. Parker screamed and fought with every ounce of strength that they had. Their head was ringing with rage and helplessness. They couldn’t move, it was as though their life had become a nightmare and they were held completely powerless.
Suddenly the boys’ laughing dissolved into shouts of pain and Parker felt the weight of the boys leave their body as they were violently shoved aside.
“HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT?” They heard a bellowed roar, “IS IT FUNNY NOW?”
Parker’s body shook so hard that they could barely look up and focus on what was happening around them. They blinked twice and wrenched off their mask which was stretched across their face. When they managed to focus, they were completely shocked to see Tiger with his arm locked around Jarod’s neck in a stranglehold, his face becoming a darker red by the second as he scrabbled uselessly at Tiger’s arm. The other kid was lying on the ground a few feet away clutching his head and swearing.
“I’m not going to kill you this time.” Tiger’s voice had changed from a booming roar to a deadly hiss. “If I see you again, you won’t be so lucky.”
Tiger flung Jarod towards his friend and he sputtered and gasped for breath as he rolled across the grass. “You’re crazy!” He choked hoarsely.
Tiger got to his feet and took a menacing step towards them. “Stick around and you’ll see how crazy I can get.”
The boys scrambled to their feet and were off and running without even a glance at Parker. One of them stopped and yelled something when they reached the edge of the bridge, but the wind carried away his words and when Parker looked up again they were gone.
Parker tried to get to their feet. They pushed themselves up onto all fours and then their body was overwhelmed with spasms of shaking and retching.
“You’re safe kid, you’re safe.” Parker could hear Tiger murmur the words, over and over again. They were very glad that Tiger was there and also glad that he kept his distance. Parker didn’t think they could stand for anyone to touch them.
“W-what if they come back?” they asked, pushing back unsteadily into a sitting position and rubbing the back of their trembling hand across their face.
Tiger didn’t answer right away and when Parker looked over, he was staring out towards the bridge where the boys had run. “I got no guarantees for ya.” Tiger said finally, “but, I don’t think they’ll be back. They aren’t a match for me and they know it.”
Parker felt a huge wash of gratitude towards Tiger, but it was so mixed with shame and humiliation that they didn’t know how to put anything into words. “If you hadn’t come…” They started to say and then didn’t even want to try to finish their sentence.
“Good thing you scream like a cat on fire.” Tiger said with his mirthless laugh. “Come on, I dropped my rod to come runnin’ let’s go see if the fish have carried it away.”
Parker got unsteadily to their feet. They could feel Tiger watching them and looked up. Their eyes met for a moment and then Tiger nodded to them and turned to walk back towards the river. Parker followed wondering at what their life had become. Wondering if anything could ever be normal again.