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.
Johnny and his dad hopped out of the pickup at their campsite in a State Forest campground where they had heard morel mushrooms grew in the spring. The smile on Johnny’s face and the bounce in his step told the whole story about how he was feeling. It had been a long time since his dad had done anything special with him.
“Heads up!” Seven year old Johnny turned and saw a football spiraling his way. He dropped his sleeping bag just in time to catch the ball in the cradle made by the crook of his arm and chest.’
“Just like the pros,” said his dad.
Johnny was walking on air. They pounded the tent stakes into the ground, then rolled out their sleeping bags inside the tent. Johnny stacked the firewood they had bought at a gas station. When he turned around for another piece of wood, he saw his dad lift a cooler from the bed of the truck.
“More food, Dad? We already got a cooler full over by the picnic table.”
“I brought some drinks in this one.” His dad set his load down on the ground, reached inside and tossed Johnny a Mountain Dew.
“Yes, my favorite.” Johnny caught the can and opened it. “What did you bring, Dad? Sweet tea? Root beer?”
“I just brought a couple of these.” His dad held up a can of beer.
“You brought beer?” The excitement faded from his face and voice.
“Don’t worry, son. It’s not going to be a problem. Hey, we came out here to have a good time, right?”
Johnny’s dad was already drunk by the time they headed out into the woods in the late afternoon. He was tripping over logs and running into trees before they were out of sight of their tent.
A few other people were out hunting mushrooms that day. Johnny was ashamed and embarrassed. He moved away from his dad and watched the ground for the white or grey colored mushrooms with caps that reminded him of honeycomb in the beehives on his uncle’s farm.
Hunt around brush piles, his father always told him. Look near the trunks and roots of elm trees was another proven tactic. Johnny set his mind to both strategies and walked deeper into the forest.
There they were, morel mushrooms, five, six, seven inches tall. He picked them and found more, so he picked those and found even more. His onion sack was bulging. Johnny was excited to show his dad, but then remembered seeing him stumble through the trees.
He called out, but the only answer was the caw of a crow and wind in the treetops that sounded like water rushing over stones. An image came to his mind of his dad sleeping in his recliner after drinking a lot of beer. A bomb couldn’t wake him up at those times. What if his dad had gone back to their tent and fallen asleep?
Johnny had been so excited to find mushrooms that he hadn't paid attention to the direction the campground was in, and now he was lost. It had been late afternoon when they had walked into the forest. Now it was early evening. What would it be like to spend a night in the forest alone? What would there be out here for dinner? Mushrooms?
Johnny walked until the air turned cooler and the rising moon darkened. Raindrops the size of pennies fell and soaked his baseball cap, his shirt, his hair. HIs spirit was dampened, but there was nowhere for him to escape from the rain and gloom, so he kept walking and sulking into the night.
It was so dark and his vision so hindered by the falling rain that he almost bumped into the side of the decrepit shack that sat beside a two track road. The smoke of a wood fire told him someone was home, and through a filthy window pane, he saw light coming from inside. Maybe whoever was here would help him find his dad.
Johnny approached the window. HIs breath fogged the glass, and he tried to wipe it with his hand, but it smeared, making it more difficult to see inside.
A face burst into view through the window, and the eyes of an old woman fixed on him. Her thin, wiry hair, wrinkled skin and a long, crooked nose made him think of every scary story he had ever heard or seen. He stumbled backward and fell into the mud.
Johnny got to his feet and ran to the two track. Nobody good could live in that place. It was too awful. She came out through the front door wearing a hooded coat.
“That’s right. Run back to wherever you came from.” She crossed from the door to the edge of the porch. “I might be all the wicked old hags you’ve ever heard about in stories. Have you heard of Hansel and Gretel? The wicked witch of the west? I might be them and worse. I’m tired of you kids wandering over here from that campground and sneaking around my place at night. If you’re in trouble, you’re welcome to come inside and get warm and dry. Otherwise, stay away from my house.” The old woman went back inside and closed the door.
Every choice seemed wrong. He could spend a night in the forest and possibly get sick, or he could go into the shack and find out the old woman really did eat children. What would his dad do? His dad would just open another beer and not think about it. Johnny walked slowly back to the building made of rotting boards and crumbling concrete. The door opened before he had a chance to knock.
Inside, the old woman handed him a blanket. He looked around the single room. A bed stood along one wall, blankets neatly spread across the sagging mattress. A table and one chair occupied the center of the room. Along another wall was a sink with a hand pump and a wood burning cookstove with the door wide open and a fire blazing inside. In another corner was an old broomstick with worn bristles.
“Go over by the stove and take those clothes off. Wrap yourself in the blanket and get warm.”
Johnny stood next to the stove. He wouldn’t take his clothes off, they could dry while he wore them. If she wanted to help him, why didn’t she call his dad? On the wall were photos, all of children. Baby shoes hung from a wooden peg. Next to the sink was a block of wood, old and stained, with what, he didn’t know. A huge knife that looked like it was made for chopping, stuck up from the top. He turned back toward the woman. She was only a few feet away, staring at him.
“Well, am I a witch, or not?”
Johnny bolted, and the woman’s cackles chased him out the front door and down the muddy two track. He slipped and fell, over and over again. In the distance, he heard a motor start followed by a loud explosion that sounded like a gun. Lights from behind sent him off into the woods. He ran, tripping over roots and over branches that had fallen from treetops. He ran until he fell and landed beside a downed tree. He was still holding the blanket, so he pulled it over his head and leaned back against the rough bark. The old woman drove past and in a few minutes came by again on her way to the shack.
He heard no more from the witch, that’s what he had decided she was, and he had to make a choice. He could stay where he was and try to sleep through the storm and a night in the forest, or he could walk along the two track road to see where it would take him. One thing was for sure. He wasn’t going back inside that shack. Why did she have all those photos of children on the walls? And those baby shoes were creepy. What if they were all the children she had eaten?
The night passed slowly, and the rain let up until it stopped. The only sound was the constant dripping of rainwater from the leaves above, but eventually, that fell silent as well. Spring peepers sang and crickets joined the chorus until the forest was alive with the sound of nature’s music.
He heard things in the night, things that might have been interesting if his dad were with him, and sober. But alone, the sounds frightened him. A scratching sound like a cat clawing a tree made him think of the cougar people said they had seen in the forests around the area.
A large animal came along and Johnny didn’t dare peek out. The heavy footfalls stopped, and it sniffed the air. An awful odor filled the air around him. Something touched his head and he heard another sniff. Johnny looked at the ground in front of him. A paw covered with black fur and with claws that curved into the ground, scooted under the blanket. After a couple of minutes, the bear went away. Johnny breathed a sigh and relaxed.
He was so hungry his stomach was making noises. What was there to eat during a night in the forest. What did bears eat? Little boys? Pooh Bear liked honey. What did witches eat? The photos, the baby shoes and the big knife stuck in the block of wood spun around in his head like a crazy merry-go-round. Go over by the stove and take those clothes off, she had said. The stove door had been open, just like in Hansel and Gretel.
- A Night in the Forest: Part Two
In spite of his hunger, fear and general discomfort, Johnny dozed on and off during the night. He woke and peeked out from under the blanket. A dim light filtered down from above the treetops. It was morning, time for him to get moving down the...
© 2016 Chris Mills