Parker's mom had never made a secret of the fact that Parker had been a mistake. Of course, for a lot of years, Parker had thought that meant she'd accidentally picked up the wrong kid at the store, or something.
When she was nine, one of her mom's boyfriends explained it to her, laughing. When she realized she was never going to be returned to be picked up by someone who might want her, it made being a mistake seem less like something that might turn out all right.
Her mom got engaged to a guy who made it clear that it was him or Parker. The ring didn't even have a diamond in it—Parker would have held out for one—but it wasn't hard to predict what her mom's choice was going to be. Now that she knew there wasn't a store she could go back to, Parker wasn't entirely sure where to go.
The police found her camping out in a neighbor's dog house, which was how she got put in the system. Later, she'd feel sympathy for her mom: not going further and finding a better hiding spot had definitely been a mistake. And it sucked.
Parker heard the names the families called her when they returned her to her social worker. "Freaky," and "disturbed," were some of the nicer ones. After a string of houses where not being normal sometimes ended in being locked in the attic or hit with a belt, or worse. Parker ran a second time.
She was way more careful about where she slipped away to. Nobody found her. Well, nobody until Neal.
She got caught shoplifting from the supermarket. It never would have happened if she'd been feeling all right, but she'd eaten something bad from her last dumpster and had been sick for almost two days. She was being held in some kind of back office, looking for possible ways out, when the door opened and a teenager with deep brown hair, and cheekbones as sharp as hers, said, "C'mon, we haven't got much time."
She decided that once she was out of there, if needed, she could kick the kid in the balls and be gone. With that, she chose freedom over a certain return to people who always found out she was a mistake. The kid moved quickly, she had to give that to him, and he knew how to make it look like he belonged when necessary. Once they were several blocks away, when Parker was wondering what would happen if she just split off, the kid reached inside a battered backpack he'd swung around to his front. He handed her a bottle of orange juice.
Immediately suspicious, Parker asked, "What's that for?"
"To drink," he said, not even sounding condescending. "I thought we could share."
Parker debated just running with the juice. She didn't think he'd follow. She was pretty good about knowing when someone planned to hurt her. At the same time, he'd helped her get away from the guard who'd twisted her wrist so far she'd had to keep herself from screaming, and given her his bottle of orange juice. A thought occurred to her that she'd never had before: it'd be pretty rude to slip off without even saying thank you.
Instead, she shook the bottle, opened it, and took a sip, before handing it over to him.
The boy climbed a rusting fire escape carefully, and slipped into a derelict apartment building. He'd left the bottle with Parker. It was clearly her choice whether or not to follow. She stood there for a moment, but it was cold outside and she hadn't scoped anywhere to stay, especially since she wasn't sure how to get back to where she'd been that morning. Following the kid's footsteps exactly, she made it up the escape and through the window.
Inside, there were more kids. Parker stilled. The kid she'd met said, "I'm Neal. This is Gee, Mikey, and Bob."
Parker had never really been taught manners, so she just nodded. The one who'd been introduced as Bob—who was easily twice her size—said, "I got the bakery lady to give me the day-old pastries last night. Want one?"
The uneasy feeling in Parker's stomach wouldn't go away. She wasn't sure how to respond to being offered something. Taking things that weren't hers was one thing, but this was something else, and it felt more dangerous. Bob was just holding it out to her, not making any moves toward her. And she was so hungry.
After a moment, she darted in and took it from him, before retreating to where her back was against the window. She still had the orange juice bottle, and between the two, it was a pretty good meal. She knew she needed to get going. Feeling full after so long was making her sleepy, and she needed to find somewhere safe for herself.
Neal said, "We haven't got extra blankets, but we can share."
Parker bared her teeth. "Why?"
Neal's gaze flickered to the other three for a mere second. Quietly, he told her, "Because I know what it's like being on your own."
She kept expecting the day to come when they all went their own ways. Neal could tell fabulous stories, and Gee drew pictures for them. Bob found ways to feed stray cats and dogs, which meant there was almost always something warm to cuddle around. Mikey was simply, quietly kind. Parker knew they'd figure out she was different in a bad way, start using the words adults always had about her. Or maybe they would just realize she was a mistake. One way or another, she knew better than to think she was going to get to stay.
She was certain it was all over when Mikey came home with three more boys trailing after him. Especially as it quickly became clear that Brendon was fun, lots of fun, and Spencer was good at finding all sorts of things, and Ryan was almost as good as she was at stealing. Good enough, in any case, that trading her for him wouldn't cause any problems.
She thought about going before she started hearing them talk about the ways she was no good. She thought about going while she might still be missed, a little, so she could pretend they were feeling the same way as she was when she got lonely. She thought hard, but somehow, she never managed to actually leave.
Parker was snooping when she found Eliot. She'd noticed something was weird about one of the subways she'd hopped and when she figured out there was a false wall at the back of one of the trains, she couldn't help but find out what was inside.
She waited until the train was out of service to get to work. Parker was good at this, though, and it didn't take long to figure out where the door opened and how to undo the lock. Inside, there were four cages piled, one atop the other. The bottom one had—she hissed, "Shit."
The boy inside the cage blinked groggily at her. She was pretty sure he hadn't eaten in awhile. She didn't say anything else, just got to work picking the lock on the cage and dragging him out. He didn't resist. In fact, once on his feet, although he stumbled, he seem to come to a bit and said, "Go. Go, they'll be back."
Parker was tempted. She had a place to go. And she wasn't sure she had the right to bring anyone back. But, well, she knew what it felt like not to have anywhere to go. She shook her head and planted her feet. "Not without you."
"You don't—they'll find me. And there's—"
"They definitely will if we just stand here."
The boy stared at her for a split second more, then, probably seeing he wasn't going to get his way, at least not quickly or cleanly, he said, "I'll follow."
She had a nightmare a couple of nights later; memories merged with monsters melded with shades of what she feared in her waking hours. They all had them sometimes. Bob would often wake her up and play games of tic-tac-toe or something else easy until she could fall asleep again. Ryan would read to her from the books he was always picking up from one place or another. Neal would tell her a story. Brendon would sing her a lullaby. Gee would draw the monsters and make them silly rather than scary. Spencer and Mikey would just cuddle her as much as she would let them until she settled.
Parker wasn't as helpful when the others had nightmares, but sometimes she secreted away gifts she'd skimmed here and there, little things, to share when those happened.
That night, it was Neal who was by her when she shuddered awake. She didn't think he was sleeping much. He asked, "Wanna story, Park?"
Parker's gaze strayed to the newly-named Eliot. His sleep was fitful, but at least he was resting. It had taken a bit to get him to close his eyes. Slowly, Parker shook her head. Instead she asked, "When he's better, is that when I'm gonna have to go?"
"Go where?" Neal asked, looking confused.
Parker shrugged. "I'll figure that out later."
Now Neal was frowning. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm freaky," she told him matter-of-factly. "And disturbed and mentally—"
"What if you are?" he interrupted. "I don't agree, but what would it matter?"
Parker didn't know how to answer that question. It seemed as though it should be obvious. She tried, "I'm a mistake."
Neal's jaw flexed. Slowly, he said, "I believe someone told you that. But whoever did was wrong. Because a mistake couldn't make me laugh when I'm feeling terrible or make Bob eat when he wants to give his food to the rest of us. A mistake would never be able to watch Ryan's back or get us ointment when Mikey gets cut up by broken glass. And a mistake definitely wouldn't save another kid's life."
Parker thought hard about that. In the end, all she could understand was, "You don't think I'm a mistake."
"I think, if you ran away from us, we'd never stop trying to find you. I think you're ours, and I think you're perfect. So, no, I don't think you're a mistake."
That was a lot to think about, and Parker wasn't sure where to start. "Can I maybe have a story now?"
"Have I told you the one about the Roman soldier and the lion with the hurt paw?"
Parker shook her head. "Did the lion eat him?"
Neal laughed quietly, and began the story.
Things kind of made sense after that, at least a little. Parker decided that she wasn't a mistake with the other kids in the group because they were all alone without each other. Somehow, that canceled out the problem.
The Elizabeth and Peter thing was pretty weird, but Parker figured they were just biding their time. She didn't even question it when Neal made the plan for her and Eliot to go away. It sucked, because she would really miss Gee drawing "tattoos" on her legs and Brendon teaching her funny songs. She'd miss Bob's piggyback rides and the way Mikey snorted when he laughed. She'd miss how Spencer could comb and braid her hair without pulling it, and Ryan was always teaching her weird things. She'd even—although she'd never admit it—miss Elizabeth's way of checking in on them every night and every morning, including tucking them in. And she'd miss how good Peter was at pushing her on the swings at the park.
It didn't matter, though. If Neal thought they needed to go so the others could be safe, so that the three of them would be safe, then they were going. Neal always knew what was best.
Then Elizabeth and Peter found them and made them come back and Parker really didn't understand even a little bit. Peter kept touching her shoulder or just looking over to make sure she was there, and Elizabeth had gone to the kitchen as soon as they'd all stopped talking to make food for the three of them, any food they wanted.
Parker looked at Neal for an explanation, but Neal seemed afraid, or something. Like he was having a dream he didn't want to wake up from and knew he would. Like he was sure the Burkes had made a mistake.
Only…Parker didn't think wanting to keep Neal and Eliot was a mistake. And Neal and Eliot didn't think wanting to keep her was a mistake. She muttered to Neal, "Maybe we're not mistakes for them?"
It seemed unlikely, maybe even ridiculous, but given the facts, it was the best she could come up with. Neal just reached down and squeezed her hand. Parker hadn't been paying attention, and when she glanced up, Peter was standing in front of them, frowning slightly. When he saw her look up, he smiled instead and said, "How about you guys get cleaned and warmed up while El's making the food?"
Peter tucked one of her filthy hairs behind her ears and tugged a little at the earlobe. She nodded her head. She would go get clean, but she wasn't sure she could be any warmer than she was just then.