Gene passed better than most of the other woodsers here did. He’d learned tricks in Seattle, when he pretended to be a university student in order to spend his days inside the clean, dry, academic buildings instead of outside. He was good at sink washes, knew how to take them and not get caught. The smell was usually the first thing that gave someone away as a street kid. The smell of being unwashed, and also any visible dirt. Hair was the hardest to clean so he kept his covered, except when he could shave it off.
He was also good at being lucky. Early last spring he’d found a box of clothes on the steps of an apartment building in Capitol Hill. Inside was one of those puffer jackets, the thin kind that all the kids at the university wore. He peeled off his damp sweatshirt to try it on. His shoulders fit in the sleeves, and when he zipped it up warmth radiated through his chest. He left his sweatshirt in the pile. It was from his sister’s high school track team, his last memento from home. But it was too bulky to carry now.
Gene. An old name, he knew. It made him sound old. His sister, Heather, used to call him Genie when they were growing up. It was supposed to be embarrassing, a designation of his status as younger sibling, a baby. So he would scoff, blush, mumble, “Stawp.”
Secretly, he loved it. He felt like a powerful magical being. In Aladdin, one of the VHS tapes they played on repeat, he was the blue creature with a funny voice who got to give people whatever they wanted. Gene often wished he could do that. Genie, that’s who Gene really was.
In Seattle he called himself “G.” People liked it because it was slang for money, a rap song’s code of wealth. None of them had any money whatsoever. It was cool, ironically, to call him something he didn’t have.
Sammy had introduced him as G when they first showed up. But now that Sammy split off, he had options.
* * *
He woke that morning to the sound of a new bird call, one he hadn’t noticed before. Its song was a bit mournful, low. One note in particular reminded him of Johnny Cash doing the Nine Inch Nails cover—something Heather would play when she thought Gene had gone to bed. He’d lie awake and listen to her delicate voice layered an octave above Johnny’s gravely croon.
Gene wished he could hear the song now; he had it downloaded and everything. But his phone died weeks ago. He hadn’t been to town since Sammy left. Instead he’d stayed put, working through the supply of shelter dinners and protein bars they’d collected over the summer. But food was getting scarce. All he had left was a sack of peanuts and three dehydrated meals he’d snagged from an unattended campsite up the hill.
Gene munched a few nuts then put the bag back in his dropsack. He hoisted it into the foliage and tucked the line in a hole above a branch. He zipped his tent, threw the tarp over it, secured it with rocks he’d pulled from the riverbed. He decided to place the longer, flat one across the tent’s opening this time. It was smooth and cool, ancient. He rubbed it with his fingertips, closed his eyes.
He took the long way into town, avoiding the footpaths and tracking the river. The sun dappled the birches, their color just starting to turn. Heather used to describe these leaves as coins, golden tokens rustling in the breeze. Gene liked that image, liked to think his family grew up in a forest of money. They were rich in flora if nothing else.
It was strange, after several weeks, to see other people again. To be seen. The trampled forest path gave way to sidewalks, houses sitting closer together as he approached the main strip. He caught a glimpse of himself in the shiny exterior of an office building, stopped to see his reflection. He looked okay, from this angle at least. He pulled his beanie to sit a bit higher on his forehead like how some kids wore them back in Seattle. His stomach ached and he walked on, saw the corner he’d passed so many times, made the left turn.
His heart pounded as he pushed open the door.
He took a few steps toward the counter and stopped, looked around. The space was cozy, its walls covered in artwork and bookshelves piled with paperbacks and magazines. There, in the back, was a couch. And along the row of windows to his left was a bar with stools, where you could sit and look at the mountains. Gene smelled coffee.
“Hello, welcome,” the girl behind the counter had long dark hair plaited across her head. Her glasses were pinkish and round. She seemed to be his age, more or less.
“One tea, please. For here.” Gene exhaled.
The girl smiled. “Certainly. We have a lot of different kinds of tea, which would you like?” She pointed to the chalkboard on the wall behind her. A list of twenty-odd varieties loomed over him.
“Er, um. Um.” He wiped his hands against his pant legs. Okay. He spotted two words: “English, yeah, breakfast. English breakfast please.”
“You got it. Any milk or sugar?” She eyed him. “Or you know, I actually like mine with milk and a bit of honey, if that sounds good.” She was being nice. That was nice. “Those are both complimentary, er, I mean free, by the way.”
“Oh, thanks. Yes please.”
He paid in change and lingered by the counter, glancing back at the couch. It was dark and looked to be covered in some kind of velvet fabric. A painting of a whale breaching the frothed ocean hung above it.
“You don’t have to stand here,” she said. “I can bring it to you.”
Gene headed for the couch. A minute later, the girl came by with his tea, along with a plate holding a muffin. She set both down in front of him. “It’s a day-old, I can’t sell it. So if you want…”
The muffin was delicious, and warm. He saw a wall outlet and plugged in his phone. As it charged, he opened up his notebook. Its metal binding was still cold, as was his pen. He figured he still had a month or so before the weather really turned here, at least if Eastern Washington had the same patterns as Seattle. He had no idea if it did, though. Seattle’s winters were the hardest. The rain soaked everything, seeped into the concrete no matter how far back beneath the overpass he went. Finding that puffer jacket had elevated him to the next level of passing, allowed him to exist inside warm, safe buildings like this one.
That was the main reason he still didn’t have a dog. He’d fallen in love with one born under the highway last spring. She looked up at him with her massive teary eyes, nuzzled his hand. Her black fuzzy body warmed his. He’d zipped her into his sweatshirt until only her head peeked out of his neckline, whispered to her.
He named her Gemma. Gene and Gemma, Genie and Gem. He could summon her, one of the riches of the world, to fulfill any wish.
But keeping Gemma would mean that Gene couldn’t go inside anymore. Gemma would mean no shelter beds, except at that Lutheran place where his backpack was stolen. The place where the volunteers wore doll-like smiles and made him recite scripture before granting his shower privileges. Gemma would mean dirt and smells, rain and cold. Gemma was something precious he could lose.
Although he hadn’t taken her, he went back and visited daily, bringing whatever scraps he could find. He’d call to her and she’d come running, sometimes with another dog in tow. Until one day, she didn’t. Gene scrambled along the rocky embankment under the bridge, getting too close to the tents just to see if she’d found a new hole, a new place to hide. But there was nothing soft and warm amidst the trash and empty vials. He began to cry, slumped against a slab of concrete. He left only after a woman poked out of her tent flap holding a knife, waved it his way. Later that night, he noticed his pants were covered in black grease, the kind that never really comes out, even with the best soap.
That was around the time when Sammy told Gene about his plan to hitch a ride east, to the mountains, as they stood in line for the lunchtime meal at Roots. Gene knew that Sammy liked him. Often Sammy would sit and watch Gene mess around on his phone’s artpad program, doodling. Sammy once asked Gene to draw him, crossing his arms in front and pursing his lips. Gene liked Sammy, too, but kept his distance. He never let Sammy know where he spent his afternoons, knew he wouldn’t be able to blend in with the college kids on campus. Sammy got a bit wild sometimes, even when he wasn’t high.
But after losing Gemma, Gene needed a change. He told Sammy yes, he’d go with him. Then he stopped by the art center one last time. He couldn’t tell the staff there he was about to leave. All he did was give them a drawing he’d made of Gemma on the porch. It was a fantasy, Gene explained, a happy moment. The counselor on site that day stared at him, asked if he was free for a one-on-one session next week. Gene said sure, wrote the date in the notebook he’d taken from the university library. He knew he’d be well out of town by then.
And here he was, seated on a cushion a hundred miles away. Gene felt his hand gripping his chewed up ballpoint pen, warmed now by his touch. He looked at the notebook in his lap and saw that he’d drawn her again. Wet nose, soulful eyes, ears flopping on her cheeks.
* * *
His phone was at 70% already, nice. He unplugged it and walked to the counter, looked for a sign with the WiFi code. There it was: Shelter_Guest, password cOffeeFir$t.
“That O is actually a zero,” the girl behind the counter said as Gene typed into his phone.
“Ah, thanks.” He waved his phone. “It worked.”
She was seated on a stool, a book open in front of her.
“What are you reading?”
She held up the front cover of a textbook: Campbell Biology, 12th edition. “Nothing too exciting, just taking some courses online.”
“Cool,” Gene said. “Like, at a college?”
The girl smiled. “Yeah. I’m part-time at Washington State. Online only for now, sounds silly but it’s kind of nice.”
“Wow.” Gene thought about the giant lecture halls in Seattle, how he’d sneak in and sit in the back, watch the students take notes and raise their hands and browse the internet on their laptops.
“I took a few classes at UW,” Gene said.
“I mean, I sat in on a few. Not, like, for a degree or anything.”
“So Biology, is that your major?”
“Yup.” She smiled again. “I want to be a scientist, like my sister.”
Gene thought of Heather, how he found her up late every night, seated at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and her reading. She’d gotten her nursing degree while working full time at QFC and taking care of Gene when he was still in high school. That must have been really hard, managing it all. Maybe he hadn’t understood enough at the time, was too lost in his own drama, his own grief.
“Well good luck. I’m gonna go sit back down.” Gene walked over and sunk into the couch.
His phone was lighting up with notifications now, the internet flowing freely. He opened Facebook, typed in Heather’s name.
Her last post was still that one in the pumpkin patch, from nearly a year ago. “Love my family,” it said underneath, next to emoticons of an orange heart and a house. The caption ended with, “All I need.”
The photo was a selfie of Heather and Mike. Mike was wearing his favorite trucker hat, the camo one. He’d served two tours overseas and liked to remind Gene that he still had shrapnel in his leg. He’d point to a small bump by his knee and tell Gene that’s why he couldn’t find regular work, as Gene collected the empty green bottles that Mike would leave on the coffee table.
Mike’s eyes were hidden behind sunglasses but Gene could still see their glint, the cold hardness around the blue. Gene suspected Mike had taken the photo; he’d probably written the caption, too. Heather wouldn’t say something like that, not when the picture was just the two of them.
Gene created a new text message, typed Heather’s number in. Hi. I miss you
He hit send and the text turned green. Two seconds later, the red exclamation mark inside a circle appeared next to his message. Her number still didn’t work.
Gene tensed. He opened up a browser window, typed in her married name. He couldn’t pay for those tracking websites, not today at least. But maybe something new would show up this time; a job, an address, some sign of life.
Nothing. He typed in Mike’s name, too, then deleted it as soon as the same old results appeared. Finally, he typed Heather’s maiden name, her real name, just to see. But it was only her track meets again, the article in their local paper talking about how she’d broken the school record in the 4×400. Gene pictured her sweatshirt lying in the box on Pine Street. He pulled his hat down lower across his forehead, sunk into the couch.
* * *
Gene opened his eyes with a start and looked around. Falling asleep in public was a no, went against the basic rules for existing inside spaces like these. It identified him as an outsider, someone relying on this soft warmth instead of merely enjoying it. But the café was less than half full, and no one seemed to have noticed him.
On the table closest by, he saw a few empty mugs and a plate. He picked them up and brought them over to the bin on the side of the counter. He saw a few more on the bar near the door and brought those over as well.
“You don’t have to do that,” the girl behind the counter said, after his third trip back.
“I know.” Gene wiped his hands on his pants. “Can I use the restroom?”
“Of course. It’s there, see,” she pointed to a door near the café entrance.
Gene walked over and pulled the handle. An automatic light turned on, the fan whirring softly. The room was large and smelled nice. Gene noticed a purple sprig in a vase on the sink: real lavender. Not the fake stuff most places have, those treacly plug-ins.
He went to the bathroom, washed his hands, looked at his face. He took off his hat, ran a hand through his hair. It was about a half inch long now, still short enough to work fine. He splashed water on his head and face and rubbed it around with the tiniest bit of hand soap. Then he took a bunch of paper towels and carefully dried his head, face, and neck. He swabbed the damp towels under his armpits, too, reaching beneath his t-shirt. This wasn’t the time to do a full bath, not yet. But for now, he was satisfied with the results.
Gene made sure the sink and toilet were clean before walking out. He opened the door, closed it behind him. The air inside the café had a new, startling chill.
The girl was off in the kitchen area preparing a sandwich. A kid with a hoodie over his head and baggy black cargo pants hovered by the counter, peering at the cash register. The door to the café was open, letting in a cold breeze. Someone stood in the doorway with his leg against the frame, looking over his shoulder outside. The person wore green military-style pants, red Jordans peeking out from beneath their baggy legs. A familiar chain looped from the kid’s back pocket under the front of a large hoodie.
“Sammy?” Gene said, walking over to the person in the doorway.
“G money! My man, it’s been a minute.” Sammy slapped Gene on the shoulder, causing him to rock back slightly. “You good?”
Gene saw the boy at the counter look back at them, tilt his head toward the counter, make some kind of sign to Sammy with his hands.
“What are you doing here?”
“Just getting our due, you know.” Sammy looked over his shoulder again. “Hey, why don’t you wait outside, we can all head to Bern’s and relax after?”
The blacks of Sammy’s eyes were so wide Gene could barely see the green rings around them.
“Yeah, cool,” Gene said. “My stuff’s there, wait a sec.”
The boy at the counter eyed Gene and then eyed the girl, still making sandwiches in the back. Gene walked up to stand next to him. He could see his face now, recognized him as part of the crew Sammy joined. The boy looked at Gene and Gene saw that his pupils were dilated, too.
“Hey, man.” Gene said, his voice low and steady.
The boy fidgeted with his hoodie, looked back over his shoulder at Sammy, looked up at Gene. Gene’s eyes were fixed on the girl behind the counter, watched as she sliced a sandwich roll in half.
“She’s something, right?” The boy spoke quickly, his voice higher than Gene imagined.
“Who, that girl?”
“Yeah. Been watching her for weeks now. The only thing that’d make her face look better is my dick in it, right?”
Gene’s pulse quickened, the space behind his eyes red hot. He didn’t respond.
“I’ll get her soon, you’ll see.”
The boy looked back at the girl one more time, nodded at Gene, then grabbed the glass tip jar from the counter and darted toward the door.
Gene stuck his foot out. The boy tripped, fell, landed on his stomach.
Shards of glass sprayed everywhere.
Gene heard the sound first, high and bright, twinkling. He’d heard it before, in the flash of a bottle exploding against the kitchen wall as Heather ducked and covered her head. She was crying, pleading. But Mike picked up another bottle and held it up as he yelled that all Gene did while Heather was at work was sit around the house and draw, like a fucking queer. Gene saw Mike sway, saw Heather move over to steady him. Saw her take the bottle from his hand and bring him to the chair as Gene hid behind the doorway. Heard Mike tell her if that kid eats another bite of the food that you cook with our money I’m gonna slit the ungrateful faggot’s throat, and I’m gonna make you watch.
Gene’s fists were balled at his side. He looked up to see Sammy staring at him. The other boy lay motionless on the floor.
Sammy went over to him and he got up, the two of them snatching bills from amidst the wreckage. Gene moved closer, and the boys ran to the door.
“You’re dead, G. You know you’re fucking gone after this, right?” Sammy’s eyes were wild as he stuffed money into his pockets.
“What the…” The girl was at Gene’s side now, her phone in her hand. “I’m calling the police!”
Sammy and the other kid ran outside, Sammy’s middle finger up, his eyes locked on Gene. He stopped and made a motion of his finger running across his throat. “Dead,” Gene saw his mouth move through the glass.
Gene was sweating, felt like he was about to collapse. He looked at the girl.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What for? This wasn’t your fault.”
“I know those kids.”
“Oh,” the girl said, and Gene watched her eyes grow wide, then narrow. “Oh. Did you… invite them here, or something?” She stepped back, the phone still in her hand.
“No! No. Listen, they’re not my friends, I promise.”
“Okay. Just, wait over there.” The girl walked behind the counter, the cell phone at her ear. “Hi, yes, I’d like to report a theft.”
Gene looked around the café. There were two other people there, both staring at him now. He looked down: the glass had shattered with force; he could see the shards extending all the way over near to the couch. He wondered if he should sweep them up. No, probably not if the police were coming. Should he even be here, if the police were? But the girl told him to wait, so he waited.
* * *
The cops showed up twenty minutes later. He stayed on the couch while they talked to the girl, glancing up now and again. He saw her point at the door, down to the broken glass. And then he saw her point to him.
Two policemen walked over and sat across from Gene. The girl followed, standing slightly behind them.
“Hey there,” one cop said. He was holding a notepad. His voice was gentle, like how a grandfather’s should be.
“We heard you were a witness?” The other cop was big, his belly rolling over the belt at his waist. Gene saw his gun nestled at his hip.
“Um, yeah. Yeah I guess I was.”
Gene saw the cop with the notepad write down something, asked Gene his name and wrote that down, too.
“So you know these guys?” The big one adjusted his belt.
“Well, not really. Or, yeah, I know them, just like, they’re around.”
“Can you tell us where they live?” The first one said, his pen poised over the notepad. Gene saw his hands were rough, a nice contrast to the shiny band on his left finger.
Gene thought for a second. He had a pretty good idea where Sammy’s crew lived, though couldn’t say for certain. But if Sammy was already planning to kill him, well, it wouldn’t hurt to try to get them all arrested first.
Gene explained the part of the woods where he thought Sammy’s crew was, where the lookouts usually hid. He noticed the girl look at him. His cheeks flushed.
After he finished, the cops seemed satisfied. The one put down his pen, said thank you.
“So that guy just tripped back there? Lucky break.” The bigger cop stood up, his gut redistributed back around his body.
“No,” Gene responded quickly, looking up at the girl. “He didn’t trip.”
“I did it. I tripped him.”
“Well look here, an actual good Samaritan.”
“Thanks for that, kid. I’m sure the nice girl appreciates it.”
“Now if you’ll just give us your ID, we’ll jot it down and be all done.”
“What do you need that for?” Gene sat up straight.
“Just routine processing, nothing to worry about.”
“I don’t, um, I don’t have it on me right now.”
One of the cops looked over at the other one. “Huh. That’s funny.”
“I guess, I guess I left it in my house this morning. Oops?”
“Very peculiar. The kid comes into a coffee shop and doesn’t have his ID, then some of his friends come over and try to case the place…”
The bigger cop took a step toward Gene. Gene stood and balled his fists at his hips.
“You know,” the girl said, walking to stand next to Gene. “Officer… Gentry, is it?” She smiled up at the larger cop and touched Gene’s arm. “This here is one of my regulars. Sometimes he gets a bit spacey like that, nothing to worry about.”
The cop with the notepad stood up and nodded. “Thanks ma’am, don’t worry. We’re all set here. You’ve both been very helpful.”
“Great.” She smiled. “Probably time to get back to work now.”
Officer Gentry shrugged.
“Yeah, okay. We got what we need.”
The other cop nodded at Gene. “Be good, Samaritan.”
They walked to the door.
“Thanks,” Gene said, looking up at the girl. Her hand was still on his arm, near his elbow. It felt nice.
“Thank you,” she replied. “For what you did there, I mean. How he didn’t fall, you know.”
Gene smiled. He was exhausted.
The phone behind the counter rang and the girl excused herself to answer it. Gene sat down, closed his eyes, and went dark.
* * *
He awoke to the sound of the girl stacking chairs upside down on the tables. He sat up with a start, and she walked over.
“So your name’s Gene, huh,” the girl said, wiping her hands on the towel she kept at her side. “I heard you tell the cops that.”
Gene smiled, blushed. “Yeah.”
“That’s cool. Gene: an ancestral instruction; the basic unit of inheritance.”
“Is that what you learn in your class?”
She eyed him. “Why, are you curious?”
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, sorry. I’m Fran.”
“Fran.” Gene paused, tried to think of something witty to say. “I guess there are a lot of cool Frans out there too.”
Fran smiled. “You know, I’ve seen you walk by here a bunch before. Glad you finally came in.”
“Thanks,” he said again. “Same.”
Fran tilted her head. “Come with me.” She walked back to the counter and beckoned Gene to follow. Gene waited in front of the espresso bar while Fran ducked under the counter.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. What if it was Heather?
Gene could still picture her standing outside the house in those massive sunglasses she’d refused to take off even at night, no sun to hide from. She was holding his backpack, handed it to him. Told him she’d saved up some cash, it was in the middle pocket. The way she put her hand over her mouth as he walked down the road made him think she was crying, her shoulders bowed and shaking softly. Once he got on the bus he pulled his hood over his head and banged his fists into his eyes. He should have resisted more, stood up for her. He should never have left her there, no matter how many times she said she’d be okay, no matter how many times she said they’d both be better off with him gone.
Fran came back holding a paper bag.
“Here,” she said, placing it before him on the counter. “These are the rest of the day-olds, if you want them.”
Gene looked up at her, his eyes moist.
“Oh, oh I’m sorry,” Fran said. “I hope that wasn’t, er, I didn’t mean to, um, you don’t have to take them!”
Gene shook his head, wiped a sleeve across his face. He took a breath.
“No,” he said, exhaling slowly. “Just some ghosts. Sorry.”
Gene reached for the bag and placed it in his backpack. The left strap was fraying, only held by two strings now. “Thanks, for these.”
“Okay.” Fran’s voice was soft. “You’re welcome.”
Gene took another deep breath. “Can I help you clean up?”
“Of course not.”
“Okay.” He turned to head out the door.
“There’s something you can do, though,” Fran said. Gene turned back and looked at her. “Come back tomorrow. I mean it!”
Gene looked out the window at the street. The sun had dropped below the mountain range and the sky was turning purple, that soft color, the one that looked so good against concrete. He carefully hoisted his backpack onto his shoulder, nursing the frayed strap.
He nodded, waved goodbye. He walked outside, felt the sting of evening on his face. He remembered his earlier notification and checked his phone: but the text was from Sammy. It was a gif of a wrestler Sammy liked, The Punisher, grinning and wringing an imaginary neck.
He knew he’d have to move his tent, find somewhere they couldn’t track him. The fact that Sammy sent the message only minutes ago meant he had WiFi still—was probably at Bernie’s, given what he’d said earlier. That was good, hopefully it meant Sammy was partying. Hopefully gave Gene a buffer. He’d still take the shortest way back, just in case.
He adjusted his pack and remembered it was full of food. He remembered his phone was charged and had new videos downloaded, new songs he wanted to hear in addition to his favorites. Maybe he could ask to join the group of elders for the night, offer them baked goods in exchange for protection. Gene would figure it out, he knew.
As he walked he thought of Fran, wondered what she was doing. Wondered if she could see him still, in the distance. The ancestral instruction; the creature who’d grant every wish. Or maybe he’d already donned his protective armor, his invisible cloak, the skin he’d grown to survive the night? Maybe all she could see was a lone boy slipping through the waning dusk with his hood up, gaze down. He thought again of Heather, of Gemma. He cinched his armor, sealed the gaps. Nothing was going to get to where he kept them; safe, secure, wrapped tight within the membranes of his heart.