Endless Change

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chapter 1

drop-cap-parker hit his bike brakes and waited for the light to change. He always got stopped at that light, and it always took forever to change to green. He would just hop across the street during a lull in traffic, but it was a busy time of day and the cars were whizzing by pretty quickly. Not a good time to compete for physical space.

A movement caught his eye and he turned his gaze to watch a woman shuffle into the alleyway. She was short and stout and wore a hoodie, with the hood pulled up over her head. She was looking back and forth and over her shoulder as if she were trying to make sure no one was watching her. But she didn’t turn far enough around to look at Parker.

There were lots of homeless people, old and young, in the neighborhood, but this was not a regular that Parker recognized. He couldn’t remember ever seeing her before. That wasn’t unusual, and she wouldn’t even have merited a second glance if he hadn’t been bored and waiting at the light.

She disappeared from his view. In a couple more minutes, the light changed, and Parker stood on his pedals to get moving again. As he went by the alleyway, he peered inside to see if the woman were still in sight. She was, not unexpectedly, going through dumpsters. Looking for food or for bottles to cash in for refunds. She turned her head as he rolled by and saw him watching her.

Parker pumped the pedals. He didn’t want to get into an altercation with her because she was paranoid about people watching her. And he needed to get to school before the bell rang, which was going to be tight. He got about half a block away before processing the face that had looked back at him.

A broad, round, black face. Not a saggy, wrinkled, broken-toothed old woman like he had expected. The bangs that emerged from her hood were a bright pastel pink. She had on makeup, or at least a shimmery pink lip gloss.

Parker braked and looked back over his shoulder. Had he really seen her clearly, or was his mind just filling in the blanks? A teenager, close to his age, going through the dumpsters. Where was her family? Was she a runaway? He couldn’t remember seeing her around the neighborhood before, and the harder he thought about it, the more sure he was that she was a complete stranger. He had never seen her around before. He would have noticed her. She wasn’t exactly inconspicuous.

He turned his bike in a slow circle, trying to decide what to do. He knew what his mom would say. Go to school. Don’t be late. Take care of the things that you are supposed to do. Be responsible. All of those things that never seemed important when he had a choice to make.

Parker pedaled back toward the alley, avoiding a few pedestrians who seemed intent on getting hit. He looked back down the alley again. She was still there, her back to him once more, her form hidden beneath the shapeless hoodie. Parker stood there on his pedals for a moment, staying balanced on his wheels with just the slightest movement. He watched her. She looked back over her shoulder again, and he saw that his assessment had been correct. She was a little older than he was, maybe fifteen or sixteen. Her eyes glittering and lively, cheeks round, and skin unlined. She saw him watching her.

“Get out of here,” she told him crossly. “Leave me alone.”

Parker completed a couple of revolutions of his pedals to draw closer to her. “Hi, there.”

She frowned at him, thin brows coming down and mouth shut in a straight line. Parker waited for a few moments in silence.

“Hi,” she said back finally.

“I’m Parker.”

She glanced around. In particular, she looked behind him, seeing if there were anyone else there. A crony or an audience.

“Shouldn’t you be at school?”

In the distance, they both heard the school buzzer over the pedestrian traffic and car engines. Parker gave her a little grin. “Uh… yeah, sounds like I missed first bell. Going to be late now.”

“You’d better go, then.”

“What’s your name?”

“You don’t ask homeless people their names.”

“Why not?”

“Because we’re not really people, like you. We’re just anonymous. Like the rats.” She poked into another garbage bin and pulled out a couple of empty bottles.

“You’re a person,” Parker pointed out. “Just like me. What’s your name?”

She stared at him for a few minutes before going back to her dumpster diving.

“Dakota,” she said, not looking back at him.

“Dakota? That’s pretty.”

“It’s a stupid name. It’s the name of a state. Who wants to be named after a stinking, dusty state?”

“I think it’s pretty. I like it.”

“Well, yours is Parker. What kind of judge are you?” Her tone was sharp. “Is Parker your first name or your last name?”

“First. My last name is Jurek.”

“What kind of name is that?”

“Polish, apparently.”

She snorted, eyeing his white complexion. “That figures.”

“You’re homeless?”

“Yeah, I’m homeless. What do you think, I just do this for the fun of it?” She gestured to the garbage cans.

“Are you new here? Where did you come from?”

“None of your business.”

“Where are you staying? In a shelter?”

“Sometimes.” Her tone said ‘not very often.’ She turned her head to look at him for another moment. When she turned back to the garbage bins, he noticed that her hands were still. She had abandoned her search for the moment, unsure what he was going to do. Parker crept a little closer on his bike.

“You don’t go to school?”

“Does it look like I go to school? They wouldn’t want me there.”

“Why not?”

“I stink,” Dakota said explosively. “I stink and I’m… dirty. You wouldn’t want me sitting next to you like this, would you?”

He was close enough to see her clothes better, and to smell her. Her clothes were wrinkled and worn, but not stained. Not dirty, like she asserted. And she didn’t smell bad. A little sweaty, maybe, but not ripe like some of the bums he passed on the street.

“You don’t look so bad.”

“Well, I can’t go to school like this. And I don’t have a shower, so that’s not going to change anytime soon.”

“Where are your parents? Are you all on your own?”

“I don’t have anyone taking care of me.”

“What happened to them? Did you run away?”

Dakota turned fully around and faced him with her hands on her hips. “Just who do you think you are? Who made you the big boss around here? I don’t have to talk to you.”

“No… I was just wondering.”

She glared at him steadily. Then she laughed and shook her head. “You are the weirdest little kid.”

Who was she to be calling him a little kid? Parker scowled at this. “I was just being nice. I’m not a little kid. You’re what…? Sixteen? Fifteen?”

She hesitated, not answering.

“Well, I’m fourteen,” Parker snapped. “So you’re not that much older than me. I’m not a little kid.”

“Okay, sorry.” Dakota didn’t sound the least bit sorry. She sounded sullen and irritated. She kicked an empty garbage bin, making it clang loudly in the muffled quiet of the alley. “My mom abandoned me a long time ago. I never had a real dad.”

“Oh… I’m sorry.” Parker bit his lip, thinking of when he lost his dad. He put his feet down on the pavement, bracing himself instead of balancing. “That really sucks.”

“Yeah, it does.”

“Where were you before you came here? If your mom abandoned you a long time ago, who was taking care of you?”

“None of your beeswax.”

Parker blinked at her. “Okay. Fine.”

They just looked at each other for a few minutes in silence. Parker couldn’t think of what he should say to her. He felt sorry for her and wanted to help her, but he didn’t have anything to offer.

“You got money?” Dakota asked, reading his mind.

“No. Sorry, or I’d give you some.”

“You got a school lunch program? Or do you bring your own lunch?”

“I bring a couple of sandwiches.” Parker reached for his backpack. “You want one?”

She didn’t answer, but stood there expectantly. Parker dug down into his backpack for his lunch bag and unrolled the top. He removed one of the two plastic-wrapped sandwiches and held it out toward her.

“You want one?” he repeated, giving it a little shake, like she was a fish that needed a bit of extra encouragement to take the hook.

Dakota took the sandwich from his hand and looked it over carefully, as if there might be something wrong with it.

“What kind is it? Is it meat?”

“It’s chicken,” Parker confirmed, taking a look at the one he had kept. “It’s really good.”

“So you say.”

“It is.”

She picked at the plastic wrap to find the edge. “I should save it for my lunch.”

But it was obvious that she was going to do nothing of the kind.

“I can’t, though. I’m just too hungry.”

Parker felt a little better, watching her unwrap the sandwich and take a big bite of the corner. He had done something to help. It wasn’t a lot, but she wouldn’t starve. Parker would be hungry all afternoon, but he wouldn’t mind, knowing that he had helped to feed someone else who would have been hungrier.

“It is good, isn’t it?” Parker prodded.

“You make it?”

“No… my mom.”

“It’s nice of her to make you something to eat.”

“Yeah,” Parker admitted. He probably hadn’t thanked her for making his lunch in a long time. He usually helped with making their lunches, but sometimes he complained about it and she didn’t always ask him. “Yeah, I should tell her that.”

The sandwich disappeared in seconds. Dakota threw the plastic wrap on the ground, in spite of the fact that she was standing within an arm’s reach of the garbage bins. Parker got off his bike to retrieve it and threw it in the garbage while hanging onto his bike with the other hand.

“Don’t you think you’d better be getting to school now?” Dakota prompted.

“Yeah. I guess so. Where will you be later?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Around.”

“Okay… I’ll see you around.”

She narrowed her eyes at him suspiciously. Parker gave her a smile and got back onto his bike to go to school.

Parker was distracted all through his morning classes, thinking about Dakota and her situation. He knew it wasn’t unusual for teens to be homeless, but usually they were couch surfing or staying at a shelter. He didn’t like to think of Dakota sleeping on the streets. It was dangerous. And it couldn’t be too comfortable. He would be sleeping on his warm, cozy—if a little lumpy—bunk, and she would be on the ground. Maybe sleeping behind one of those dumpsters that she had been searching through.

She had a pretty face. He admired the sparkle in her eyes in spite of the serious situation she was in, and her sarcastic humor when they had spoken. She wasn’t beaten down, that was for sure.

There were a few shelters around that she could go to. But a shelter was a temporary solution. A transition between homelessness and finding a real, permanent solution.

Parker would have invited her to stay at his house, but Mona, his mom, would freak out over that. Seriously freak out if he brought a girl home to stay there. She was bad enough when he brought home an injured bird or squirrel. They didn’t have any spare beds. The couch would be better than sleeping on the street, but in their small house the living room was the hub of the family, and it was rarely empty. There would be little opportunity for Dakota to have any privacy or to sleep. There had to be some better solution.

“Mr. Jurek? Parker!”

Parker startled, realizing that the teacher was trying to get his attention. He straightened up quickly and looked at Mr. Bonne.

“Uh, sorry,” Parker apologized quickly. “I wasn’t listening.”

“You’re not going to be able to do this work if you don’t listen.”

“Yeah. Sorry. I was just thinking about—” Parker bit off the end of his sentence. Mr. Bonne didn’t need to know what it was that he had been thinking about. He wasn’t asking. And Dakota wasn’t in his purview. “Sorry. I’m listening now.”

Mr. Bonne looked at him for a moment longer, then went on with the math lesson. Algebra. Something that Parker was falling further and further behind in. He stared at the board, trying to make sense of what Mr. Bonne had written.

Parker sat with his friends at lunch, trying to focus on their chatter instead of on the Dakota problem. He didn’t tell them about her. Chris and Adrian would tease him mercilessly if he said that he had stopped to talk to a girl, given her half of his lunch, and couldn’t get her off his mind. And she wasn’t someone who would fit their definition of ‘hot,’ a requirement if he were going to moon around about a girl. She wasn’t ugly, but she was overweight, homeless, and smelled of sweat and garbage. Not the kind of girl Parker could bring up with his friends.

“Parker, done already?” Mr. Bonne asked, looking at the empty space on the table in front of Parker.

Parker looked at the table. His stomach was not satisfied with one measly sandwich. But he had known he would go hungry when he had given the other to Dakota.

“Yeah. All done.”

Adrian looked over, his brows drawing down. “You’re done?” he repeated. “You didn’t have anything.”

“I had a sandwich.”

Mr. Bonne looked at Parker. “Just a sandwich?”

“Yeah.” Parker shrugged. He didn’t want to make a big deal of it. He didn’t want to answer questions as to where the other sandwich had gone or why he didn’t have anything else.

“You need more than that,” Mr. Bonne said. “You want to grab something from the lunch program?” He gestured to the counter against the opposite wall of the cafeteria. “Another sandwich or an apple?”

Parker felt his face get warm. “I’m not signed up for the lunch program,” he said. “It’s okay. I’m fine.”

“The school lunch program is for whoever needs it. I’m not going to stop you from having something because you didn’t anticipate that you’d need to sign up for it. What do you want?”

“Nothing. Really.”

Parker’s stomach let out a loud growl of protest. Casey, across the table from him, cracked up and slapped his hand on the table several times in applause.

“I know all about teenage boys and the amount of food they eat,” Mr. Bonne said with a smile. He walked over to the counter and picked up a sandwich and an apple, which he brought back and placed before Parker without another word. Then he walked away, continuing his supervision of the lunch room.

That was Mr. Bonne. No big deal. He didn’t bring a bunch of attention down on Parker or make him sign the forms or talk to his guidance counselor about the food shortage. He just made sure Parker had what he needed and went on.

He was a good guy. Older, starting to go gray, but he moved like a young man and wore a polo and blue jeans. He talked to his students like they were people, not taking on the superior tone of an adult who had more knowledge and experience than they did. And he didn’t pretend to get down to their level, trying to look cool and talk like a teenager. He was just Mr. Bonne. Genuine.

Parker glanced around at his friends. They were all looking away from him and talking to each other, making sure not to make a big deal of the fact that Parker had needed extra food. Parker, who always had enough.

He unwrapped the sandwich. It looked like PBJ, but had to be one of those nut butter substitutes. Soy or sunflower seeds or something other than the highly allergenic peanut. He gave it a tentative sniff, and then took a big bite. It was not PB, but it tasted good and would stick to his ribs. Parker ate in silence, listening to the other boys and thinking about Mr. Bonne and Dakota.

After school, he lingered in the classroom. Mr. Bonne looked up from his ledger, sensing that there was still someone in his room after everyone else had dismissed. He gave Parker a friendly smile.

“How’s it going, Parker?”

“Good. Everything’s good.”

“You seem distracted today. And you were short on lunch. Everything okay at home?”

Parker couldn’t complain about his home life. He was one of the lucky ones. They might be crowded and poor, but his mom didn’t drink or do drugs. She worked hard every day and always found a way to stretch the money between paychecks so that the kids all had what they needed. He didn’t go home to family members or housemates who were drunk and abusive

“Yeah. Yeah, home is good.”

But he still didn’t make any move to leave. He packed his backpack slowly, like that was the reason he was still in the classroom. Just to pack his bag.

“What do you need to do to go to school?” he asked Mr. Bonne.

Mr. Bonne sat on the edge of one of the other desks, and frowned. “You already go to school,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, I know that. I mean… like if you just moved here, and you needed to start going to school, what would you need to do?”

“Oh. Well, you’d go to the office and fill out registration forms. The school would requisition records from your previous school. Get copies of your ID. Nothing very complicated.”

“Do you need to have a home? Or could someone come who… didn’t?”

“You’d need some kind of address. Would this person… be living at a shelter?”

Parker shook his head. “No.”

Mr. Bonne rubbed his bristly chin, considering. “I don’t know all of the administrative details,” he said. “You would need some kind of address.”

“What about parents? What if you didn’t have parents?”

“As long as you had some kind of guardian…”

Parker shook his head.

“What are we talking about here, Parker? Are you considering running away from home? There are programs that can help, if you are having problems.”

“No,” Parker shook his head adamantly. “It’s not me. It’s… a friend.”

He knew that Mr. Bonne heard his hesitation in referring to Dakota—someone he had barely met—as a friend, and knew he would take it the wrong way. Mr. Bonne would be even more sure that Parker was talking about himself.

“I’m sure we’d be able to work something out,” Mr. Bonne said. “Education is important, and so is the safety of our students. If there was some reason you couldn’t be at home, we’d find a way that you could still continue your education.”

Parker nodded. He felt himself blushing. One of the dangers of his fair complexion. “It’s not me,” he repeated. “Nothing is happening with me.”

He zipped his bag up quickly. A quick nod to say goodbye to Mr. Bonne, and he hurried out of the room.

Parker was not sure about his course of action. He rode up and down the streets looking for Dakota, and found her sitting with a paper cup, begging for change, on the sidewalk below an overpass. She sat in the shadow of the bridge, sheltered from the full heat of the sun. She had shed her hoodie, so he could see the extra-large My Little Pony t-shirt she was wearing and her brilliant pink hair in all of its glory.

When she saw him roll up on his bike, she didn’t look like she knew how to react. She nodded a greeting, but didn’t smile at him.

“Hey,” Parker greeted. “Dakota, right?” Like he hadn’t been thinking about her all day and hadn’t been looking for her since he got out of school.

“Yeah. And you’re Parkinson.”

Parker opened his mouth to object. She snorted in amusement at her own joke.

“Parker,” he corrected weakly.

“Oh, yeah. Parkinson.”

Parker shook his head. He glanced around. There were a few coins in her cup, but it didn’t look like she had been able to make very much sitting there. Parker didn’t have anything to put in it. Not even food this time. “So… how’s it going?”

“I’m having a ball.”

“Yeah, I mean… I know you’re not in a good place. I’m just making sure… you’re okay.”

She sighed, relaxing just a little. Her lips curled into the barest hint of a smile. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Do you want to go to school?”

The way that Dakota looked at him made Parker realize that he had blurted it out without any introduction. Just diving right into the middle of the conversation without any small talk, like his mom always accused him of doing.

“I mean…” He couldn’t think of anything else to say. Anything else to lead up to it or explain why he was asking. “Well… do you?”

Dakota didn’t look at him. She shrugged her rounded shoulders. “Yeah, maybe.”

“My teacher, Mr. Bonne, I think he would help get you signed up. So you could.”

“They always need a ton of paperwork,” Dakota said. “I don’t have anything.”

“He said he’d help.”

“You told him about me?” Dakota’s eyes widened. She looked up and down the street as if she thought someone might be after her. “What did you tell him about me for?”

“I didn’t. I just said I had a friend who might want to register.”

“You can’t tell anyone about me.”

“Well…” Parker readjusted his position on the bike, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Who else did you tell?”

“No one. I’m just thinking… you’ll need an address, and I might know someone who could help you out.”

“Who?”

“A lady I know… I haven’t told her anything about you yet. I haven’t seen her. I just thought… you could use her address and Mr. Bonne would help you to get signed up. Then if you wanted to, you could go to school.”

Dakota considered this. “They got a free lunch program?”

“Yes.”

“What about breakfast?”

Parker nodded. “Yeah, sure. That too.”

“And showers in the girls’ locker room?”

“I guess so. There’s showers in the boys’ room.”

Parker watched Dakota mull it over. He mentally ticked off the advantages as she considered it. If she registered for school, she could get two square meals a day and a shower. Maybe she could use a locker in the locker room as well to hold the rest of her possessions so she didn’t have to carry them around the school with her.

Dakota scratched her head. “I suppose… if you wanted to talk to this friend of yours. See if she’d let me use her address.”

Parker grinned. “Great! I will. And you’ll be… here?”

She looked at her paper cup and clinked around the change in the bottom. “I’ll go get a muffin or something. I’ll come back here after.”

“Okay. I’ll see you later, then.”

He jumped onto his pedals and hurried away. He wasn’t sure yet how everything was going to come together. But so far, his plans were working out. And Dakota wasn’t being quite as terse with him as she had been in the morning. Maybe she understood now that he was just trying to help her out. He thought she could use every bit of help she could get.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Endless Change

By P.D. Workman

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