The next couple of weeks were a blur of hiding, scavenging and survival. Parker became acquainted with a couple of dumpsters, which helped supplement their food supply, but mostly they stayed out of sight.
“You can never think of the Authority as bein’ gone.” Tiger had lectured, “they aren’t gonna look once and decide you’re not here and forget about ya.”
Parker had at first thought that Tiger was paranoid, but that was before they had seen the Authority boats combing the water of the Red River with their aqueous drones.
“They’ll be worried. If they’ve said you’re dead and cremated, it’ll be awfully inconvenient if someone finds your body.” Tiger had said, sending Parker up the banks of the Assiniboine River. “They’ll be lookin’ for you dead or alive.”
That was when Parker had started roaming. They had found a few different spots where the decaying trunks of giant old trees provided for sheltered hiding or sleeping places. During the day they moved every hour or so. They knew every spot along the river bank from the Forks to Omand’s Creek and they quickly learned which were the safest and most secluded. Now that all the leaves had fallen, getting up into most trees didn’t provide much camouflage, but they had found a couple of evergreens where they could watch the world invisible to all except the sparrows. This was particularly useful on weekends when avoiding people was more of a challenge.
Tiger continued to do whatever Tiger did during the days. Parker usually left his stuff at Tiger’s shelter, dropping it off in the morning and picking it up before he found a place to burrow for the night. They couldn’t afford to have the few things they owned get stolen or wrecked. Tiger’s shelter was safer, nobody wanted to mess with Tiger. Occasionally they shared a meal or a conversation, but mostly their visits were brief. There was no doubt that Parker being around put Tiger in danger. They owed him enough to stay away.
“There you are!” Tiger growled pacing in annoyance one evening as though Parker was late for a dinner date.
Parker instantly scanned the river banks for signs of the Authority, but saw nothing. “What’s up?”
As Tiger explained to them about a plan to get what they needed to write a letter, they felt terror rise in their throat. “You can’t miss it, I been told the van is always around Old Market Square about midnight. Their whole thing is helpin’ street kids, if anyone can get you what you need, it’s them.” He finished triumphantly.
Parker had never ventured out into the city at night, the idea of going downtown at midnight alone was scarier than taking another kayak ride down the river in the dark.
“Well?” Tiger asked, clearly nonplussed by Parker’s reaction.
“Do you really think it’s safe?” they asked, staring at the ground.
Tiger’s laugh burst out of him, startling Parker so much they flattened themselves to the rocks and prepared to run. “Safe? I’m not sure there’s much in this life that’s safe. You gonna spend the rest of your life as a shadow on the riverbank?”
Parker felt their face burn, they kicked at the ground feeling like a stupid, little kid. They couldn’t even put exactly into words what they were afraid of, but the ease with which those teenage boys had tossed them around and pinned them to the ground was never far from their mind. Tiger had told them more than once that those kids weren’t much to worry about. That meant there were much worse out there. “Ok, where do I go?” The words were as empty and hollow as Parker’s chest.
It seemed simple when Tiger explained how to get to Old Market Square, where to wait and how to keep a look out for the van, but as Parker sat and waited for it to get later, their stomach writhed like a basket of agitated snakes. At least as Parker sat trembling in the dark they didn’t stink like they normally did. Tiger had also managed to find some other clothes for them in the charity boxes at one of the shelters. The shirt was a bit tight and the matching pants and zip up sweater made them feel like they should be a track star, but the clothes were clean. A lot cleaner than Parker.
Parker knew that there was an outdoor tap at the Forks Market where Tiger would get water, and even an outdoor plug where he sometimes boiled his kettle. He had some kind of routine for washing up, but it felt too awkward to ask him about it. Tiger wasn’t exactly neat and clean, but he was definitely able to keep more presentable than Parker.
There had been one glorious day when Parker had spied workers in the Johnson’s Terminal building at the Market and had managed to sneak in and use the bathroom by the backdoor. They had put as much of themselves as possible under that tap and had even tried to wash their hair with the soap from the soap dispenser. It had felt ridiculously good to take off a layer of grime. They had never imagined that they would fantasize about a shower and a chance to brush their teeth.
“Kid, it’s time.” Parker heard the words from Tiger’s shelter and jumped to their feet. Without a backwards glance, they walked out into the night.
Parker walked through the streets as fast as they could without actually allowing themselves to break into a run. Every shadow made them flinch and every stranger made them cower. There was a slight chill in the air, and they were thankful for the old grey jacket that Tiger had found on one of his foraging trips. Parker went over what they would say to the people who ran the outreach, how would they explain their need for pen and paper? How would they explain anything?
They were so distracted with their circular thinking, that they almost walked right into the van that was sitting next to the abandoned food stalls.
“Do you need socks?” The question surprised Parker so much that they just gaped at the straggly haired youth with the bright red toque and a mask that said RAY. “You okay?” he asked when the silence stretched on.
“Okay,” Parker said, talking before they had the chance to think, “socks are good, everyone needs socks, right?”
“Definitely, they’re one of our most popular items.”
Parker nodded a little too vigorously and then made themselves stop. All they could think about was how strange it was to be out talking to anyone. They felt like they didn’t know how to make conversation anymore.
“I haven’t seen you around here before,” The guy casually said as he rummaged through the back of the van. “Do you know about us?” He asked handing Parker a pair of thick black socks.
“About who?” Parker asked, looking around awkward and distracted.
“RAY outreach,” the guy said, gesturing to himself and to the back of the van where Parker could just barely make out a woman whose white mask stood out against her black skin. “I’m Elliot, this is Jaz.”
“Hot chocolate?” Jaz asked, holding up a thermos.
Parker looked around and then slowly nodded again. It seemed too weird to be out on the street after midnight having a cup of hot chocolate with some strangers. It was usually their dad who made the hot chocolate, Parker loved it especially when he heaped on the little coloured marshmallows. A wave of emotion washed over Parker and they shook themselves and pulled their hood a little lower as tears pricked their eyes. “What, you just sit out here and give out hot chocolate?” The words came out harsh, almost accusatory, but neither of the two looked the least bit offended.
“And socks!” Jaz said passing Parker a cup of hot chocolate from out of the back of the truck.
“Seriously though,” Elliot added, “We’re an organization that works to help street youth with whatever they need. Sometimes it’s hot chocolate, sometimes it’s trying to find a safe place to stay. It just depends on the person.”
Parker wanted to say that they were not a street kid. They wanted to tell these well meaning strangers that they had two loving parents who if anything were more overprotective than neglectful. Instead they swallowed hard. “What if I needed stuff to write a letter?”
Tiger was sitting on a rock staring out at the river when Parker slipped back through the trees.
“That took awhile.” He grunted as soon as he heard Parker’s footsteps.
“It’s done!” Parker said excitedly. “The letter is written and the RAY workers said they’d put it in the mail.”
Tiger didn’t answer for a minute and Parker wondered what they had done wrong this time. “What did ya tell ‘em?”
“I told them that I wanted to write a letter to my favourite teacher, that I felt lonely and disconnected and that she was someone who had understood me.” Parker found a lump rising in their throat. Although that wasn’t why they had really wanted to write the letter, it also wasn’t totally untrue.
“Good.” Tiger padded over to his shelter and pulled the worn plastic bag with Parker’s night stuff out from behind his tarp. “Does she have a way of getting a hold of you?”
“No,” Parker said, exhaustion washing over them.
Tiger gave a non-commital grunt that might have meant anything. “I guess we wait and see.”
“Yup.” Parker turned to find a nest for the night. Wondering if Ms. Rose would contact their parents. Wondering if her wife would be able to expose what was really happening to the kids that the Authority had taken. Wondering how they would even know if anything was happening. They would have to wait and see. Wait and see and hope.