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.
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 two track. A voice pierced the silence and goose bumps raised the hairs on his arms and neck. He pulled the wet blanket closer.
“Boy? If you’re, still around here and can hear me, then listen well. I saw you looking at the photos on the wall. Maybe you think I hurt those children. Maybe you think I’m a witch and ate those children. Boy? Are you listening? Those are my grandchildren. The photos were taken when they were very young, the last time I saw them. Even my own grandchildren think I’m a witch. I’m no witch, boy. I’m just a lonely old woman who lives the only way she knows how to live. Alone. I won’t hurt you, I promise. Come on out now. I think you probably wandered off from your folks at the campground on the State land, didn’t you? Probably out looking for those morel mushrooms. I pick ‘em too. I’ll take you back to the campground in my old car if it’ll start again. You can be back with your folks in just a few minutes. It’s that close.
Johnny didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even breathe. Was it true? Those were her grandchildren? Would she really take him back to his dad? He lifted the blanket off and stood up. He followed the old woman’s voice until he saw her standing on the porch of her house.
“You got mud all over my blanket.”
“I, I’m sorry.”
“Heh, Heh,” she laughed. Not like the cackling the night before, but a real laugh. “It’s just a blanket. Come on in, we’ll get you washed up and back to your folks.”
This time he was more relaxed. He asked questions about the woman’s grandchildren. How old were they now? Why didn’t they come to see her? He even asked about the big chopping knife and the wood block. That was for chopping the vegetation she harvested from the forest for food and for fish she caught in a stream and small lake and for small game but not for children, she assured him.
“My name’s Johnny. What’s yours?”
“My name is Glinda. It’s nice to meet you, Johnny.”
He was warm and dry. He had eaten some of Glinda’s food, smoked fish simmered with fresh leeks and roasted smartweed root.
He walked to the wall where the photos were displayed. The night before, he had seen only snapshots of children. Now he realized they were framed photos neatly arranged on the wall. He stopped at the baby shoes.
“Those were my first child’s shoes. I was only nineteen when he was born. Little Benjamin died before he was two years old.” She took the shoes down and handed them to Johnny.
“Oh, let’s just say God knew best.”
“Did your other children grow up here?” Johnny hung the shoes back on the peg.
“No, we lived in the city, just like most folks do. When the kids were off to college and getting married, I finally decided I’d had enough of the city. I grew up on a small farm, and that really is the only kind of life for me. I need to be able to see the natural world and experience it every day. My husband didn’t understand, but he was decent about it. In fact, he helped me build my house here in the forest.”
“You lived out here all alone ever since? What about the bears and the cougars?”
“Heh, heh, those wild things mind their own business and I mind mine. The one that found you last night was looking for food. When he didn’t find any, he moved on. You handled that just fine by sitting still and waiting.”
“I thought he was going to eat me. I thought the same about you.”
“That bear likes berries and pine nuts and ants. You’ve already tasted some of my favorite foods. Come on, Johnny. We need to get you back to the campground. Your folks must be worried sick. I’m sure the police and park rangers are already looking for you.”
“It’s just my dad, and I don’t think he even knows I’m gone.”
“Let’s get going then. You can tell me about your dad during the car ride to the campground.”
With a roar and and boom, the car came to life and off they went down the two track. After only a few minutes they pulled onto a county road and in another few minutes they were parking in the campground next to the pick up truck that belonged to Johnny’s father.
The campsite was just as Johnny and his dad had left it. The tent was empty. Beer cans were scattered around on the ground by the picnic table, and Johnny hung his head in shame.
“It’s not your fault, Johnny. Your father is a man, and it’s about time he started acting like one. Let’s go find him.”
Johnny took Glinda by the hand and led her to where he had last seen his father stumbling into the forest. After about fifteen minutes, they found him. He lay face down in a patch of trilliums, snoring and snorting in to the dirt. Glinda kicked him once in the side. When that didn’t get a response she kicked him again, harder.
“Get up. You’re ruining a perfectly good patch of wildflowers."
The man rose to all fours and vomited.
Johnny helped his dad to his feet and steadied him. Glinda stepped forward and poked him in the chest with a bony finger, forcing him backward against a tree. The finger kept poking as she spoke.
“I’m not going to preach to you, Mister. But I will tell you this. I know what it’s like to lose family, and you are going to lose this boy. Right now he still loves you, still cherishes every minute of sober time you will offer him. Last night you screwed up. Your son spent a night in the forest and a bear showed him more attention than you did, and hurt him less."
Glinda’s hand fell to her side and her gaze to the ground in front of her. She stepped away from Johnny’s dad. “I know what I’m talking about. I spent years feeling like a fish out of water as a parent. It was never a comfortable fit for me. But I never….never shirked my responsibility to those little ones."
The man looked down at his son, but turned away when their eyes met.
"You can’t even look your own son in the eyes. You’re ashamed of yourself, and he’s ashamed of you. Let me ask you a question. How low is low enough? Was it last night? Spending a night in the forest, on the ground, in a drunken stupor while your son was lost? He had to come rescue you. Do you get that? Your little boy had to come find you.”
“Lady, that’s enough….”
“Johnny, where is your mother?” Glinda stooped to talk to Johnny face to face.
“That is none of your business….” said Johnny’s father.
“She lives in town,” said Johnny. “I go there sometimes and to Dad’s sometimes.”
“You might be spending a lot more time at your mother’s house, Johnny. I’m sorry, but your father hasn’t learned his lesson yet.” She stood up, digging into a shoulder bag she was carrying, and produced a cell phone. “You, sir, are about to be hit between the eyes with a two-by-four.” She dialed a number and put it on speaker phone.
“Sheriff’s Department, Deputy Williams speaking,” said a voice from the phone.
“Deputy Williams, this is Glinda North. I live out near the campground on Route two.”
“Yes Ms. North, I know who you are. How may I help you?”
Glinda explained the whole ordeal to the deputy along with her concerns about child negligence. While she was still on the phone, Johnny and his father walked back to their campsite and began packing up their things.
“Dad, what is Glinda talking about? What is child negli….” He stumbled on the word.
“She is saying that I wasn’t doing my job as a parent last night when I had a few beers. It’s ridiculous, and I want you to forget all about it. She’s just a crazy old woman. Come on and get in the truck. Were going home now.”
“I suggest you wait a few minutes before you leave.” Glinda walked into the campsite. “A sheriff’s deputy is on the way. It might be better if you met him here rather than forcing him to follow you home.”
“Why are you doing this.” Johnny’s dad picked up the beer cans and threw them into a trash can.
“The boy needs a father who will love him and protect him. I’m sure you love him, but I think you love beer more. I’m doing this to force you to come to terms with your drinking. I don’t know why you and your wife aren’t together, but it would be a reasonable guess to say it was related to your drinking. I’ll tell you something I don’t talk about much anymore. I got caught in the clutches of alcohol myself at one point.”
“You did?” said Johnny.
“That’s right. It wasn’t beer, can’t stand the stuff. I was keen on vodka. After my children were through high school, I began drinking to deal with the boredom and my hatred for city life. After I came to live out here. I had all kinds of mixed feelings inside about what I’d done. I found that alcohol gave me a little break from the confusion. After I'd been out here for about a year, I decided that I was missing the very things I came out here to experience.”
“How did you stop?” Johnny’s dad tossed the last of the empties into the trash.
There’s a church down the road that lets an AA group meet in the basement. I started going to the meeting, and I’ve never stopped going.”
“But you stopped drinking,” said Johnny.
“Yes, I did and that has been many years ago," she said to Johnny. She turned to his dad and continued. "So you see? I know what this battle is like, and I don’t recommend you fight it alone. Find a meeting of your own to attend. The people you find there can help.”
The officer arrived and heard the story of the previous night, first from Glinda, then from Johnny’s dad. He also asked Johnny a few questions about his night in the forest.
“Sir,” the officer said to Johnny’s father, “the court will be contacting you about a court date. From right now until you hear from the court, Johnny will be in the custody of his mother. She is being contacted now so she can make arrangements to pick Johnny up here as soon as possible. The court will decide about the long term. I’ll stay until she arrives so I can explain all of this to her as well.”
“Johnny,” Glinda turned to the boy. “What food did you bring for camping?”
“We’ve got some eggs and bacon in the cooler.”
“Perfect. With all that rain last night, the morels should be popping this morning. Are you hungry for morels with bacon and eggs for a second breakfast?”
“For real, Glinda? You mean it?”
“That’s right. All four of us are going out there and picking enough mushrooms for the best breakfast ever. Officer, would you like to join us?”
“There’s no way I could turn down a breakfast like that, Ma’am.”
“Dad, will you go?”
“I’ll go, Johnny. I feel pretty bad right now, but I’ll go mushroom hunting with you. There’s one thing I need to do first, though.”
Johnny’s dad carried the drink cooler from his truck and set it on the picnic table.
“Dad?” Johnny stepped forward, but Glinda put her hand on his shoulder.
"Johnny," said his dad. "There are still several beers in here. If you help me, we can dump them all on the ground in just a couple of minutes."
As the beer leeched into the ground, Johnny spoke his wish aloud. "Never again, Dad?"
"How about one day at a time, son?"
"How about the biggest mushroom breakfast ever?" said Glinda.