Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.
“Hello, Sherry? Jack?” said Ben as he entered his friends' home without knocking. A sixty year old woman stood in the kitchen doorway, her face, normally rosy and pretty, appeared grey, her brow furrowed. She half turned and pointed.
“He’s in there—eating. Eating all the meat he can find. Ben, he won’t talk to me.” Sherry's eyes glistened with tears she had not yet shed.
“Let me give it a try,” said Ben. He slipped past Sherry and entered the kitchen. A tall, slightly built man sat at the table and gnawed on a drumstick like a beaver on a birch branch.
The two men had been best friends since the 1970 Cambodian Operation. Jack had been pinned down by a Viet Cong machine gun nest and Ben had provided cover fire along with a grenade so Ben could escape back behind the American troops' line. One of the VCs had whipped Ben’s grenade back in his direction and the blast had been enough of a distraction for Jack to sprint to safety. But a piece of shrapnel had lacerated Ben’s left cheek from his ear to the corner of his mouth. The scar was just one of the excuses Ben used to explain why he had never married. The closest he had ever gotten to that sacred institution was when he was best man for Jack's and Sherry's wedding.
After coming back from the war, the two had become fishing buddies. A small, secluded lake about ten miles from town was their favorite fishing spot. Ben and Jack would pack up their gear and some food on a Saturday morning and get home late in the evening with a cooler full of bass and bluegill to clean.
A few days before Jack’s huge behavior change, the two had been sitting on his back porch drinking beer and watching the stars appear after sunset. A bright light had flashed across the sky and appeared to have gone down in the vicinity of the lake. Jack had commented that the meteor hadn’t had a tail, which he thought was strange. If the pile of empty beer cans hadn’t been so large, they might have driven out to see where the meteor, which is what they assumed it had been, had hit.
“Looks like you worked up an appetite out there on the lake today. Any sign of that meteor we saw the other night?” Ben was still standing in the kitchen doorway watching his friend stuff turkey into his mouth. “Catch anything worth keeping?”
Jack looked up and gave his jaw a break for a few seconds, then went back to cleaning off the bone.
“You’re soaking wet, you know,” said Ben. “Where’s the boat? It’s not in the driveway.”
Jack finally gave up his obsession with the turkey leg and went to the refrigerator. He had emptied that of meat, so he checked the freezer and returned to the table, munching on a frozen hotdog.
“Alzheimer's?” said Sherry from the doorway.
“I don’t think so, but what do I know?” said Ben. “He should see his doctor right away.”
“I already called. Doctor Jamerson wants me to take Jack to the ER right now." Sherry untied her apron. “What are you going to do?”
“Go to the lake. Apparently he left the boat out there, but I can’t imagine why. He loves that old piece of junk. Come on, I'll help you get him into the car before I leave.”
Ben drove Jack’s truck so he could pull the boat back. The seat was still soaked from Jack’s wet clothes so he sat on a raincoat Sherry had pulled out of the hall closet. Whatever had happened to Jack had changed him considerably, and the answer was most likely waiting out at the lake. He thought of Sherry taking Jack to the emergency room all alone and hoped he wasn’t giving her any problems. Ben pressed the accelerator to the floorboard and raced along the county roads.
The dirt two track wound through the state forest for half a mile. How many years had he and Jack been taking this route to fish in Oasis Lake? Could it really have been forty years? They spent a good deal of the time in silence while they fished, occasionally breaking it to voice one of their deep thoughts. Which one of them had changed the name from Oasis to Osmosis Lake? The remoteness and serenity, the music of croaking frogs and singing birds, the smell of pine and fresh air had turned them both into amateur philosophers.
Ben scanned the lake and surrounding forest. He stopped when he came to the north end. The shoreline, which was kept in nearly perpetual gloom by overhanging trees, lay exposed to the afternoon sun. Tree trunks and branches were splintered for hundreds of feet into the forest but there was no sign of fire. Ben was stunned at the sight but forced himself to stay focused on finding out what had happened to Jack. The boat was floating in the middle of Osmosis Lake. That explained why Jack’s clothes were wet when he got home. For some reason, he had swam to shore and abandoned the boat.
The boat launch was a crumbling concrete slab that sloped down into the water from the gravel parking area. He was about to resign himself to swimming out to the boat, when he remembered a small dingy someone had left in the weeds not far from where he stood. He found it and wondered if he might be better off swimming. The wood was spongy and the oars were missing. Among the junk in the bed of Jack’s truck was an aluminum canoe paddle, one of those things a person hung onto, not knowing why, just that it seemed to be a good idea.
He sat in the bottom of the dingy and paddled toward the fourteen foot fishing boat. His mind was a juggernaut through history. He saw an explosion and Jack sprinting across an open field, the air around him filled with pieces of turf kicked up by bullets from the VC guns. He saw his best friend sitting in the kitchen with a pile of turkey bones on a plate and a frozen hotdog sticking out of his mouth like a stogie.
He let the dingy drift for a moment while he leaned back against the stern and rested his arms. The frogs and birds were silent and the air smelled of rotten fish. It was as if the vitality had been sucked out of the entire area.
The two boats bumped, and the modest sound bounced back from the surrounding forest. The dingy was taking on water. Ben had to either stay in the the tiny boat and try to pull the fishing boat to shore before he sank or he would need to crawl out of the dingy and into the bigger boat. The rising water around his feet and ankles helped him decide.
Ben grasped the gunwale of Jack’s boat and pulled the boats together. Something thick and sticky coated his fingers, and his hand slipped. He landed on the rotten boards of the dingy and looked at his hand. The crimson shade of congealing blood covered his palm. He hadn’t cut himself though. The blood had been on the edge of the fishing boat.
Cool water rose above his belt and shocked him back to the present. He struggled to where he was suspended between the two boats and labored until he lay exhausted on the bottom of the fishing boat in half a foot of water mixed with blood. Ben looked around to see if Jack had been cleaning fish, but saw no carcasses. Besides, there was far too much blood to have come from even the biggest bass in the lake, or a dozen of them. Blood coated everything, the seat, the motor, the inside of the hull.
He climbed onto the bench at the stern. The anchor rope was slippery with blood, so Jack rinsed it off and pulled. Damn anchor’s snagged on something. He pulled harder and felt the weight move. Whatever the anchor is snagged on is coming up with it. He pulled his pocket knife out and pressed the blade against the rope, but what he really wanted was to see what was at the other end. He put the knife away and pulled harder, hand over hand.
The body of a man broke the surface, facing down, the anchor rope wrapped around his waist. There was no way Ben could get the corpse into the boat without capsizing, so he yanked the cord on the old Evinrude and the motor roared to life. He eased the boat forward, and the rope slithered like a snake in the water until it was taught and the body was in tow.
At the boat launch, the body floated face down in the shallows. Ben gathered his nerve and gripped the man under the arms. He pulled the corpse onto the concrete where it lay, still facing down. Ben shook with fear and anxiety. Not many people fished this lake. What if he recognized the face when he turned the man over. What if he was a friend? He gripped the man’s soggy shirt, pulled up and tipped him over.
Ben looked into the dead man’s face as if into a mirror and saw a scar that ran down the left cheek from his ear to the corner of his mouth. Ben stumbled backward and fell hard on his hip, but the pain could not distract him from what he had seen. How could this be? It was impossible. When his heart slowed, Ben crawled forward to have a second look, to convince himself that what he thought he had seen was a mistake. He touched the scar on his own cheek. “My face. How can he have my face?”
Ben sensed the presence of another in his mind. He heard a click as the door to his consciousness was unlocked and swung open on rusty hinges. Neatly stacked memories floated through the doorway.
Lidded eyes opened, a hand grabbed Ben’s throat, and a familiar voice spoke.