Lake Salt Planes had a swampy funk. No one swam it, but the fishing was okay, and there were no fees, which was about as expensive as Colton Heather could afford.
A little after sunrise, he rowed the boat out and cast in his line. He sat back and waited for a bite, as he tried to resist the cooler. It was a long day, and he’d only had enough money left to buy a six pack.
His resistance lasted less than five minutes, and he cracked open the day’s first beer. Two minutes later, he started a second. Thirty seconds later, and halfway through that beer, he got a bite.
Colton grabbed the line and reeled. The fish thrashed and jumped out of the water. Mudcat, Gar and Perch were the most numerous nibblers of this lake, but this fish was none of those. It was silver. He didn’t know what it could be, but he thought he’d eat it anyway, because it was, after all, free. He finally got the fish over the side of the boat. He dropped it to the floor and saw it wasn’t just silver. It had gold stripes on its sides. The fish looked him right in the eyes and said, “Hello, dumbass.”
Colton jumped to the back of the boat, where he stared at the fish, which stared back at him.
“You’ve been fishing out here for a week. Your wife kick you out?”
Colton shook his head, but not in answer. He was just trying to shake this craziness out. When he thought he had shaken his head enough, he looked back at the fish again.
“Well? Did she?”
Colton suspected he had finally stewed his brain. He decided to talk to this hallucination, thinking that might be how to shut it up. “Don’t have a wife. Only an ugly woman would want to marry the likes of me.”
The fish guffawed for several seconds. “Yeah, I should have figured as much. But listen, I need you to throw me back in the lake. Do that, and I can grant you one wish.”
Colton thought he would gladly throw the talking fish back anyway. But still, he thought he should get what he could.
“It can’t be just any wish,” said the fish, distracting Colton from his thoughts. “You’re not going to be President or a rock star, but I could point you to a few thousand dollars or an attractive girl who might find you attractive for long enough.” The fish seemed to study him for a few seconds. “Okay, an attractive girl might be pushing it. Maybe just a girl who has all her teeth and weighs less than you.”
Colton was still afraid and very confused, but he was also tired of the fish insulting him. “All right. If you have the magic to grant wishes, then why not use that same magic to save yourself?”
“Good question!” the fish exclaimed. “Well, good for someone of your limited intellect. But it deserves an answer anyway, so here goes.” The fish nodded, and Colton nodded back.
“You see, I’m not just a fish, just like you’re not just a person. We’re both spirits. As a spirit, I am far more advanced than you, but sometimes I like to take on a lowly form, just for the amusement of it. I thought being a wish-granting fish that could not benefit directly from his own magic might be fun.”
The fish nodded again, as if asking Colton if he got it. Colton nodded that he understood. “Why is my wish limited?”
“Another good question. You see, you have a limited number of possible outcomes for your life. These are your destinies. Destinies are very strong, and I only have enough magic to alter them so much.”
Colton hated the word destiny. He hated it because he knew how powerful it was. His grandfather had been shot at a poker game. His father had been killed in prison. Colton had a pretty good idea of what his possible destinies were.
“I don’t want no money. I don’t want no whore either. I just want to be a good person. Can you do that?”
The fish closed its eyes, which was weird, because Colton didn’t think fish had eyelids. It took about a minute to open its eyes. “I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but it’s done. And now that it’s done I see how remarkably simple it was.”
Colton stared hard at the fish. It had to be messing with him.
“Now throw me back,” it said. “I can feel myself starting to dry up.”
Colton moved to front of the boat, picked up the fish, pulled out the hook, and then tossed it overboard.
He stood there for a little while, letting the madness he’d just experienced soak in. He decided what he really needed was another beer. He had spilt the last one. He got into the cooler, got a can and cracked it open. Without sitting down, he took a big swig. He spat it out.
“Holy Crap! It tastes like urine!”
“You’re welcome,” said the fish from the water.
Joshua Scribner is the author of the novels The Coma Lights and Nescata. His fiction won both second and fifth place in the 2008 Whispering Spirits Flash Fiction contest. Up to date information on his work can be found at joshuascribner.com.