Gone

by j.b. sweetser

   Harry drove up Alaskan Way. He smiled at the beautiful day - bright blue sky, sixty-five degrees, the Olympic mountains in full regalia, snow-peaked and jagged. Ahead, majestic Mount Rainier rose up south of the Puget Sound. He knew these halcyon days were quite common, Seattle not deserving of the bad rap it got as a dreary, rainy city. 


   Well, let them think that, better than having even more people move here. It was bad enough, with Amazon and Microsoft and the other tech companies bringing in rich millennials by the thousands, pushing up house prices and pushing out regular folks. 


   But it's not all glorious. Seattle had its dirty secrets, like the omnipresent homeless problem. The encampments were sprouting everywhere, it seemed. As Harry rode home to the Eastside every evening, he passed hundreds of filthy tents, smothered in trash and tucked into any highway underpass or off-ramp, some so close to I-90 or I-5 they were like a surreal border hedge.


   Toward the end of Alaskan Way, he always saw the same homeless man, whom he dubbed “couch potato” because he was always seated on a discarded sofa, watching the cars pass by in a semi-stupor. Harry was surprised that he was not there today, but sure enough, the sofa was empty, with only a few empty beer cans holding the man’s place.


   Odd. Harry continued to I-90 and the floating bridge over Lake Washington. Crossing over I-5 he saw the usual array of tents, close together in clusters all along the highway’s edges. Usually he saw a few of the homeless sitting out on decrepit old lawn chairs. But the encampments were now quiet, with no one in sight. Even the tent sites at the Rainier Blvd exit were empty. Very odd. Maybe the mayor had ordered another rounding-up of these groups. Occasionally, futile, but sincere efforts were made to clean up the camps and move the residents into shelters. But usually the sweeps were in the news. 


   Harry tuned the radio to the local news and traffic station. After the traffic report, an interviewer came on talking to Mayor Bryce. Reports were coming in from Downtown, North Seattle, West Seattle and other homeless hot spots. It looked like the residents of the camps were gone. Did the mayor greenlight a raid? No, this was the first she was hearing about it. The mayor had no idea what happened to the people in the tent encampments. She said they were also receiving reports from some of the local shelters that people were missing. No one was in line at the city soup kitchen. 


   The homeless had just vanished. 


   When Harry arrived home, his wife, Shana, already had the TV on. CNN was covering the story. San Francisco reported that their homeless had also disappeared, the same for New York, LA and Chicago. Similar reports were streaming in from all over the country. 


   “Well,” said Shana, as Harry walked over to the kitchen island to kiss his wife, “This is what everyone wanted.” 


   “Hey, Dad,” Vin, sitting in his favorite chair in the family room, looked up from the TV. “Did you see that? The homeless problem is over.” He smiled and turned back to the TV.


   Vin. Harry and Shana’s son Vin was back from college for the summer. Serious and deep, Vin worried about things. About problems. Problems in the neighborhood, in the city, in the state, in the country, in the world. Harry and Shana in turn worried about him, knowing he turned inward to himself to find ways to help. He always wanted to help his parents, too, to please them. Sometimes, things happened.


   Shana stole a panicked glance at Harry. “You told Vin,” she whispered, “didn’t you, just last night, how you hoped the homeless problem would go away.” Harry stopped short, shook it off, and entered the family room.


   “I don’t know what’s going on,” Harry said. “Maybe some billionaire swooped in and picked them all up last night, to try to rehabilitate them.”


   “That’s hard to believe,” Shana countered, “And even if they did, it’s really the mess they make that’s the worst part, all their stuff is still there. Plus, there will be new people to take their place within days. Oh, no. Someone will definitely be coming back to the tents.”


   Vin stared at his mom, then closed his eyes and shook his head. “Then I wish the whole problem would go away,” he said, “the people and the mess.” 


    “Be careful what you wish for, Vin.” Shana stole a fearful glance at Vin and went back into the kitchen.


   The next day, as Harry drove to work, he did a double take on I-90 - the camps were gone. All the tents had disappeared, all the trash was gone. In their place was a variety of bushes and wildflowers. No trace of the camps at all. 


   The same thing had happened all over the U.S. The news was on nonstop about the complete disappearance of the homeless. That night, Vin, Shana and Harry ate their dinner silently, not daring to look at each other. Finally, Vin let out a big sigh and said, “Well, solved that problem.” 


   The news channel could be heard in the background - another troubling situation was arising. In Seattle, a waitress had been let go that afternoon and her brother had worried about her. He feared she and her daughter could become homeless without her tip money coming in to pay the rent, so he drove over to her apartment to talk to her. But she was gone. Her daughter was gone. The apartment was completely empty. It was as if she never existed.


   The same situation was occurring in other cities. The potential homeless were disappearing before they could become homeless. Overhearing this new development, Harry and Shana simultaneously looked up from their dinner at Vin. 


   Suddenly the troublesome next-door neighbor’s dog began to bark ferociously. They could see it through the kitchen window. It was straining at its chain towards their tabby cat, who sat tauntingly out of reach.


   “I wish that dog would stop bothering our cat,” Vin said under his breath. 


   Abruptly the dog leaped at the cat and then vanished, leaving just a heap of chain on the grass. 


   Harry and Shana stared at Vin in horror. 


   “What?” You said to be careful what I wished for. So I was.” 

  

   Vin shrugged and turned back to his meal.